Reading and Writing History

A Guest Post by Tom Palmer

This summer I took part in my first archaeological dig on the banks of Lake Windermere. We were excavating the foundations of one of the hostels where 300 children came to live in August 1945. Children who had survived the concentration camps of the Second World War, losing everyone and everything and who became known as the Windermere Boys. You can read more about those children here.

The physical digging was great fun. But it was the metaphorical digging – talking to the people who had come to see what we were doing – that was even more rewarding. I met Joyce. She’d lived near the hostels after her family fled the bombing of Liverpool. She remembered the Boys and what the area was like three quarters of a century ago.

Earlier I’d met Arek, one of the Boys, now aged 91. A survivor of Buchenwald and Auschwitz. He told me about his time beside the lake – and, before that, in Nazi Europe. I’d already listened to dozens of hours if interviews with him and other children who came to stay here in the summer of 1945, mostly on the Lake District Holocaust Project and Imperial War Museum websites.

It’s early days, but hearing real accounts about events that happened those 75 years ago are strong foundations for my book. In the same way visiting sites of historic events – such as battlefields – and handling original artefacts is so valuable. 

That’s how I like to work. Get as close to the real thing as you can. Then work from there.

When I wrote D-Day Dog I went with a Y6 school trip to Normandy to gather ideas. When I was researching Armistice Runner I did some of the fell races that the characters – Lily and Ernest – run in the book.

But, it was while visiting the Somme battlefields, that I had my epiphany. 

I had done the first draft of Over the Line and was visiting the sites where the Footballers’ Battalion fought in 1916 and 1917. Deville Wood. Albert. Bapaume. 

I had discovered that one of my book’s minor characters – a footballer called Sid Wheelhouse who played a powerful game in chapter one and died in a gas attack near the end of the book – was buried nearby. I wanted to visit his grave. I’m so glad I did. Although I understood nothing specific about the events of the First World War from standing at that grave, I learned that I had used Sid Wheelhouse, not told his story.

I set about changing that when I got home. I searched the Imperial War Museum’s online archives and other sources to find out more about the man and his motivations for giving up a life as footballer to volunteer as a soldier. 

A few months after the book came out two members of his family got in touch. They’d read the book. They felt proud of how I’d portrayed Sid Wheelhouse. If I’d not learned that lesson at his grave I may have offended them – and his memory. My research had paid off in an unexpected, but vital, way.

This summer I am working with the Imperial War Museums in Manchester and London at their Sporting Stories weekends, where I’ll be in conversation with museum archivists and we’ll be working with families to try their hand at reading and writing history. Everyone is very welcome [https://www.iwm.org.uk/events/iwm-london/sporting-stories-summer-2019]. 

The Windermere Boys will probably have a different title, but it will be published in May 2020 by Barrington Stoke.

This is a guest post and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.

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