As part of my US blog tour, Jenny Quinlan at ‘Let Them Read Books’ asked me if I had any real life inspiration for the main character in Whirligig. He is called Shire. I was happy to answer, involving as it does a connection to my father, but the question has stayed with me these last couple of weeks. I think I underestimated the gift my father left me.
For the year or two after he became a widower, my father collected together photos and notes about his early life in Bedfordshire. It was cathartic for him, missing my mother as he did. Once he was done, and because I’d shown an interest, he gave all his notes to me. Dad was ten when WWII broke out. His school in Bedford organised itself to teach local children in the morning and then the children evacuated from London after lunch. So for almost the entire war his afternoons were his own. He used them to earn money working on local farms, one of which was on the Duke of Bedford’s Estate. He was trained up in handling the Shire horses, feeding and harnessing them. It was obviously a happy memory for him because he wrote about it in detail and about the men he worked with. Modernisation was given extra impetus by the war; by its end, the great horses and the skills needed to work them were gone, but I realised that way of working wouldn’t have changed so much since the 1860s. So here was my Englishman for Whirligig. He would work the horses as my father did. I also had a nickname for him: Shire, to connect him to the Shire horses but also to the shires of England.
I never thought of Shire as my father, that would have made the writing quite stilted, I think. Dad’s notes were a starting point only. However, prompted by Jenny’s question, I’ve reflected on this. My grandfather (Dad’s father) ran a local infant school, as Shire’s father does. Shire has the same honest integrity that my father had, the same strong urge to always do the right thing, the same romantic outlook on life. So maybe my father snuck in when I wasn’t paying attention.
Dad had also given me a place. Place has always been important in my writing. Almost all of my short stories are born of going somewhere. I didn’t want to tread on the family history of the Duke of Bedford so I borrowed the name of a local village and invented the Ridgmont Estate. Of course it was still Woburn Abbey and its grounds (the ancestral home of the Bedfords) that I visited to gain background for the opening to the book. And as Ridgmont (Woburn) provided the opening scenes of the novel so, by default, it became the starting point for the plot. The matters of consequence, the secrets, the lies and the machinations all arise from Ridgmont and are transported to civil war America by Shire’s odyssey.
More than anything I think what my father gave me was an emotional connection to my story, something that is priceless for a writer. This wasn’t simply through my love of him (though I’m getting a bit damp around the eyes typing this) but through the place and through our wider family history. All four of my grandparents are buried in the village of Woburn Sands: two at the Catholic church and two at the Protestant church; part of me is of that place. The landscape has a resonance for me. As a very young child, I’d played in the same sandy Bedfordshire forests that Shire did. Dad gave me the landscape of Shire’s memory, the place his thoughts and emotions return to when he is most at need.
Thanks Dad x
You can read the full Whirligig interview on Jenny Quinlan’s website, Let Them Read Books.