Interview: Cheltenham author Jane Bailey
PUBLISHED: 11:15 11 September 2017 | UPDATED: 11:16 11 September 2017
When Cheltenham author Jane Bailey came across the story of the Benares - the child-evacuee ship sunk by German torpedo in 1940 - the extraordinary descriptions of loss and survival planted a seed in her mind. Her new novel - What Was Rescued - explores the psychological impact of that devastating event
War and childhood: it’s hard to think of two more evocative subjects for a novelist to explore. Certainly, for Cheltenham author Jane Bailey, they’ve provided rich material for some of her most moving, thought-provoking work.
In her 2005 novel, Tommy Glover’s Sketch of Heaven, it was the plight of an East End evacuee, catapulted into the dazzling green sweetness of a Cotswold village, that took centre stage. That book – so beautifully written – remains one of my all-time favourite novels; and I’m far from alone in feeling that. But despite the panoply of praise the book received, Jane had no intention of revisiting the Second World War until a reader happened to ask if she’d heard about the SS City of Benares – the evacuee ship torpedoed by German submarine in September 1940, four days into its voyage to the safety of Canada.
Of the 407 people on board, 260 died, including 77 of the 90 child-evacuees.
“I had heard about it but only vaguely, so I went and did some research,” Jane says. “And I found it all so moving: from the stoical way the families dealt with their losses, to the extraordinary stories of the 13 evacuees who survived.”
I myself – back in 2006 – interviewed one survivor, Bess Cummings. By then in her 80s, she told me how she and a fellow teenager had clung to an upturned lifeboat, in stormy open seas, for a night and a day before the passing HMS Hurricane spotted them both. Cheerful and self-deprecating, Bess had spent her adult life as a teacher, including 16 years at Bishop’s Cleeve Primary, where she’d never once mentioned her experiences to her young charges. “They’d have found that too traumatic,” she gently upbraided me when I asked.
For Jane, there was another story that particularly resonated; a real-life story that planted the seed of a fictional idea in her mind. “One of the [evacuee] boys, aged 12, had a five-year-old brother. Above all, he remembers his mother saying to him, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let your brother out of your sight!’”
Inevitably, during the rush onto the deck, the boys became separated, the elder managing to scramble onto a lifeboat that then drifted in the Atlantic for eight days. He survived; his sibling died.
“And he never got over the guilt. All he could think of was that he’d let go of his little brother’s hand,” Jane says.
Fifty years later, at a reunion, he discovered something that rewrote his whole personal history.
“He was finally told that an adult had taken his brother off to another lifeboat; that he had been rescued on the first day, but had later died of exposure. In other words, this little boy would have died anyway, even if his brother hadn’t let go of his hand.
“And this grown man found something else out, too. That his parents had thought both their children had been drowned. So when he came home after eight days, they had been utterly thrilled that he was alive.
“But, in his head, he’d let them down.”
The silence of that era – the lack of ability to talk about feelings; the lack of acknowledgement that children have complex emotions, too – meant nothing was ever discussed.
“What moved me so much was the regret he experienced: ‘All that guilt I had felt,’ he said, ‘over all those years; it could have been wiped away.’”
In Jane’s novel, the focus is on the characters’ adult lives as they find love and suffer loss, constantly trying to come to terms with the flotsam and jetsam still swirling from the wreckage of that doomed voyage.
“It is a mystery – one of the children has a terrible secret, bound up with the events of that disastrous night – but it is also a love story and, I hope, ultimately uplifting,” Jane says.
A fictional version of a terrible truth. Ordinary lives reshaped by extraordinary events.
When I left Bess Cummings’s house, all those years ago, she wagged a finger at me. “It’s all part of life’s rich pattern,” she said. “Don’t go making anything of me.”
• What Was Rescued, by Jane Bailey – is published by Lake Union on August 1, and available from Waterstones, Cheltenham, and other bookshops, as well as via Amazon; the writing of the novel was additionally supported by the Royal Literary Fund. For more on Jane – who will be appearing at Cheltenham Literature Festival in October - visit jane-bailey.co.uk.
• You can read more about the real-life tragedy of the Benares in Children of the Doomed Voyage, by Janet Menzies