What Happens When You Ask What If?

If you missed the Facebook launch of my novel, bad luck. Here’s an edited highlight.

A very warm welcome to the online launch of The Punished with Crooked Cat’s Cy Forrest live from my studio in a rural village just south of Bath in the UK.

The Punished is my first novel in 12 years. It’s been launched today. This online event is for those who want to get to know more about my first novel in 12 years.

I jot down ideas as they emerge in a diary. On Wednesday, December 12, 2012 I wrote this about artistic responses to real life events:

“Researching novelists, and I found someone at Faber who had written her first novel in 2003, Haweswater, by Sarah Hall about the flooding of a community. This theme tied in with Elizabeth Price winning the Turner with the Woollies fire, and it made me ask if there’s any historical event that I could make metaphorical. Thoughts of Imber went to thoughts of Gabby and Tyneham.”

(*Imber is the name of a ghost village in Wiltshire, also occupied by the army in World War Two. You can see why I have an artistic obsession with ghost villages)

Gabby Holyoak (1914-2011) was my first inspiration for The Punished and I dedicated the novel to her. She’s the family link, my partner Caroline’s god-mother, and the person who became the basis for the main character Gin and the reason I developed an artistic obsession with Tyneham ghost village.

In 2011, we scattered Gabby’s ashes on one of the days Tyneham was open to visitors. It set me thinking and looking for books on the subject, of which there were none in print.

Having seen Tyneham’s empty school room and ruined buildings, it broke my heart to read the dispassionate Wikipedia entry for Tyneham. Yes, it’s a ghost village. Yes, it remains a “civil parish with a population of zero”. Yes, it was “requisitioned”, and yes, 225 people were “displaced”, but what of those facts? Those people did have names, and those names are on the coat hooks in the old school room and in an out-of-print book on the subject that Gabby left me should I one day decide to write a novel that was about more than the sum of the facts.

As well as a heavily annotated local history book, Gabby also left masses of photos of herself and her WAAF colleagues in Tyneham in 1943-44, which made me wonder what else was happening at the moment the photos were taken. 1943 was a turning point. The war reached its lowest point. The propaganda machine kicked in. A bomb could drop on Newton Abbot station, for example, killing who knows how may, and next day there wouldn’t even be any evidence of it.

Many already believed the war was over by the time the fifth wartime Christmas came. America had entered the fight against fascism, but Gabby told me a different story of what it was like to be eighteen in 1943 and  not knowing the outcome of the war. She was told that enemy spies had infiltrated Britain. She was given a gun and told to defend a pill-box on top of Flower’s Barrow. That was for real. It’s still there, Gabby’s pill-box.

Gabby became Gin in the novel and I started asking more, ‘What ifs?’ I discovered a far less fortunate location than Tyneham in Italy, the Port of Bari, destroyed in December 1943 when Britain tried to bring the American Fifth Army into the war. At the same time that Tyneham was ‘requisitioned’, Bari was destroyed in a raid. Mustard gas, that was stored on a US ship that the British wouldn’t let enter the harbour, poisoned an entire city and it was hushed up. The Punished suddenly developed a chemical warfare theme.