Friends, here is my post about Things What I Have Read For The Damn Book. I'm writing this up because, well, I do feel rather a fraud about this. I am by no means a historian. Nor am I a particularly good researcher. Here's some things I read about and then wrote a book about?
-Spies! Though I decided very early on that although there is a lot written about spies in Britain during the Second World War (which is what the book is about, in case that wasn't clear), I could not use any of the real history of the WW2 spies in my story. It turns out, you see, that they were ridiculous. In September 1940 a German spy parachuted into a field in Northants. His radio transmitter came down on a separate string. Unluckily for him, the transmitter's parachute was higher than his. He was found by the farmer in the morning with a concussion and his boots sticking out of a hedge. Also in September 1940, four German spies came ashore in a fishing boat on the Kent coast. Two of them were drunk. One was noticeably of Japanese heritage. They demanded alcohol in a pub at 9am. They were all arrested. Another spy landed in Ireland, in the wrong place, walked 70 miles across County Wicklow, swam the River Boyne and was found on arrest to have all his own WW1 medals in his pocket. By the end of 1942 every single German spy in Britain had been shot, executed or persuaded to turn double agent.
Interestingly, the Gestapo at this time was producing a handbook of Military-Geographical Data about Britain for the proposed invasion force – and spies, presumably – to carry. Among otherwise useful information it included the English phrases (and Welsh, and Gaelic!) for “sewage works”, “submarine contours”, “War Office” and “lunatic asylum” several times under various headings, for inexplicable reasons. Later in the war the RAF dropped equivalent handbooks translating English into German, including the phrases: “Was that a bomb - a torpedo - a shell - a mine? We are seasick? How much do you charge for swimming lessons? See how briskly our captain burns!
(I am reminded of littlered2
's charming 1950s phrasebook for English non-speakers of French, which helpfully includes the phrase: "Eleven hostages were shot here.")
-Some stuff about when women were first admitted for degrees at Oxford, all of which I ignored. (When I wrote Quarter Days
, I got at least one reviewer complaining that it was unrealistic to have women as judges and academics in 1919. I nodded and agreed yes, terribly unrealistic, THEY CAN DO MAGIC.) And then a fair bit about a part-time academic's life at Oxford during the 1930s; I ended up getting a lot of this out of Dorothy Sayers and of Death on the Cherwell
, a lovely contemporary murder mystery set at thinly-disguised Hilda's.
-The life and in particular, the death, of William Joyce - the last person in Britain to be hanged for a crime not murder. The wording is advised; Joyce almost certainly wasn't the last British person in that category. I spent some time reading the report of the appeal, which was brought on the basis that there was no jurisdiction in respect of treason over Joyce, who was an American citizen. The appeal was dismissed on the basis that during the 1930s, Joyce had tried to apply for a British passport (and failed) – because that meant he had made allegiance to the Crown (!). I got a lot of this out of a 1950s edition of Kenny on Criminal Law
which was also helpful on treason, hanging, and the distinctions between sodomy, buggery and gross indecency, and the scope of the Labouchere Amendment. (Around this time isis
wrote me a Watchmaker of Filigree Street fic about the passage of the Labouchere Amendment
, which I appreciated a lot.)
-A lot on the wartime history of the Underground (no one is surprised). I went down to Clapham South last winter on one of the TFL Hidden London tours, and it was fascinating – it's a tour of one of the deep-level shelters, preserved underneath the existing station. It's this incredible, dimly-lit warren of tunnels. There were miniature hospitals, canteens, whole communities a hundred feet below ground. People put on plays on the tracks after the trains stopped. They published their own newspapers. There's still seventy-year-old graffiti down there, etched into the bare rock by the shelterers. Hidden London are doing another tour in December, this time of Down Street: the disused Underground station which was the secret headquarters for Churchill's War Cabinet. It's the first time they've opened the station to the public since it closed in 1932 and I am very excited about it.
(I did a lot of reading on this subject, out of several books, on a long train journey to Liverpool. After a couple of hours of sneaking glances, the chap next to me gave me his phone number.)
-The passage of land by entail. After the Law of Property Act 1925, you could no longer create new entails but the old ones continued to exist (and in fact I acted on the drafting of a deed of disentail in the year of our Lord 2011, so). What I was interested in here was whether you could by way of testamentary disposition settle entailed land on an illegitimate child. (Answer: no.) But this led to a lot of reading on the rectification of the legal position of such children, starting with the Bastardy Bill 1920 and spearheaded by Neville Chamberlain, of all people, who was also upset about the use of "bastard" in English law and wanted the committee to avoid the word in second reading. The bill didn't actually pass.
, the post-war CIA project to develop mind control techniques on unwitting human experimental subjects. I had heard of it vaguely before writing this story, and thought, hmm, I need to read up on top-secret experimentation on human subjects! There's the place to start. Foolishly I did this while A. was away for the evening and I was alone in the house. By the time he got home I was curled up in bed waiting for something to jump out of the shadows and get me. I thought about maybe watching The Manchurian Candidate and then decided that cowardice was the better part of valour. After a few evenings scaring myself witless, I tried looking for British history on the same topic and ended up reading a lot about the Ministry of Defence experiments at Porton Down, in which a nerve agent was tested on an RAF volunteer in 1953; the inquest into his death wasn't held until 2004.
-The annals of the Petroleum Warfare Board, and their ongoing efforts to set the sea on fire. (Spoilers: they never succeeded, although they were the proud inventors of the Flame Fougasse, forty-gallon drums of oil to be set alight in the event of imminent invasion.) I was delighted to discover that there is a beautiful, pretty-much-original Yuletide fic on precisely this subject: On Shingle Street
, by halotolerant
-Victorian prisons and their notion of punishment by isolation. Pentonville, built in 1842, was built on the basis of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, with the idea that the prisoners would constantly be observed, but would not themselves ever see another face. They were masked so only their eyes were visible, isolated from one another, and kept forcibly silent. Surprising no one, the level of mental illness in the prison was much higher than in the incoming population. (This wasn't the easiest thing to read up on! I wasn't actually able to find out when they stopped doing this.)
-Post-nuclear semiotics, which I love as a concept. It's basically the question of how to deal with nuclear waste: not actually how you store it or whatever, but what you do after that. Can you really bury something time out of mind? And if you can't, how can you communicate across that wasteland of time - more thousands of years into the future than human civilisation extends into the past - and say, this is not a holy place. This is not a place you should be. See also Into Eternity
, a completely fascinating documentary on this. It's about Onkalo, in Finland, an underground depository for nuclear waste which is grappling with this problem.
-Racial slurs through the first half of the twentieth century, particularly for mixed-race people. (My commitment to sparkle motion has been lacking. I probably should have been more vicious about this, but it does make for some dispiriting reading, not to mention it's a nightmare to google for – all you get is white supremacist websites.) I had better luck looking for terminology and detail about 1940s queers. They did call themselves that, delightfully, and lots of people found the blackout conditions very useful for sneaky kisses.
-Quaker conscientious objectors. A lot more has been written about WW1 than WW2 on this subject, but the Friends Meeting House library on St Martin's was very helpful, as was the Peace Pledge Union. The WW2 COs suffered less outright violence than the WW1 ones did – they could apply for conditional exemption, joining ambulance units, doing agricultural work, and (best for my purposes) joining fire watch volunteer teams once fire watch brigades became compulsory on public buildings in the winter of 1941. I ended up reading on this subject from two directions: the British Quakers, but I also needed to read up on the effect of starvation on the human body, and it turned out that in 1944 a number of American Quakers volunteered for what was later described as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment
. Thirty-six conscientious objectors volunteered to be semi-starved for six months, with the research team undertaking the experiments with an eye to conditions in post-Nazi Europe.
That was by no means all - I read up on many, many things. Of course the moment I conceived of writing something set in WW2 I went back and read Connie Willis's "Fire Watch
" (which I still love utterly, desperately) and following that, was lucky enough to find a copy of St Paul's In Wartime
, which has been out of print for decades. I was delighted to discover that the Very Reverend Dean WR Matthews was just as delightful in real life as he is in Connie Willis's stories. I was often to be found manning the telephone, he writes. "Not because I was particularly good at it, but because I was particularly bad at [everything else].
" There's also the bit where he and the Surveyor to the Fabric "interview every government department we can think of" on the subject of whether St Paul's is a haven or a deathtrap. Maybe, suggests the War Office, you can disguise it. As what, Dean Matthews wants to know, a barnyard? A good time is not had by all.
And then there was stuff on 1940s cocktails, and campanology, and defrocking, and Debretts, and CS Lewis, and other things - but I think I've probably bored you all for long enough. I wrote already on Twitter about the May 1941 bomb that landed on a house in Regent's Park and inconvenienced the 100 Californian cultists who were there worshipping the moon, and also the woman in January 1941 who found an onion at great effort and expense, and then thought it was too beautiful and perfect to eat so she posted it as a gift to the Minister of Food. ("Dear Lord Woolton, I hope it will bring tears to your eyes as it has brought them to mine.") I have no idea if this book will ever sell, but, hey, now I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of 1940s air raid precautions? &tc.