For me, as for most people who’ve been to see it, Sam Mendes’ World War I masterpiece 1917, was an experience as much as it was a film. The long immersive scenes, the raw action and the attention to detail all drew me in, so much so that it has stayed with me ever since. The story and lead character are based on Sam Mendes’ grandfather and, unavoidably, my mind turned to my half-uncle, Captain Richard Percy Buxton, who was killed in 1918.
Endings are tough to land; every story writer knows that. Beginnings? Most lines are a beginning of sorts. Many workshops or competitions might give out a starting line and soon you’ll have as many stories as there are imaginations. Quite often for me, a beginning is an intersection, a juncture, a convergence of ideas or places that might be experienced years apart. The point of intersection is where the story blooms, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a heartbeat.
I ‘sailed’ with my family on a sixty-five-foot canal boat over Easter, starting out from Rugby. We’d done a couple of weekends in the past, but this was the first time I was brave enough to try a tunnel, the two km long Braunston Tunnel on the Grand Union. We motored into the maw and out of the reach of the spring sunshine at, I would conservatively say, about two knots. That’s still too fast a speed to enter the underworld, maybe two knots too fast, and it was so much darker than I’d...
The truth is though, people do. In the same way we judge a plate of food before we taste it, a house by a front door, a company by a logo. Heck, when out walking my impeccably well-behaved Golden Doodle, Duffy (see The Dog Days of April) I’ll judge a dog from 80 yards by the tilt of its owner’s hat and reroute accordingly.
Aunty Pip started work at Bletchley Park in 1943. By then it was already a big operation. She would have been eighteen or nineteen. I’d long wanted to take my family there. Pip was the connection, the blood tie to the past, but even without that deeper link, there’s something very special about Bletchley.
‘Tell me when you’re loaded,’ says Jeff. He’s training me on the job. Our Captain has us in skirmish formation, five yards apart in the woods up on Droop Mountain. To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting us to get off the track. It’s rough ground to advance over; I’ve never scrambled across fallen trees in full civil war kit while carrying a heavy Springfield musket. Life hasn’t prepared me for this. Why would it? I’m yet to fire my first shot.
I’m sleeping between two Springfield rifles. Each would be as long as I am were the bayonets fixed, but that’s not a good idea in a civil war dog tent, so called because when the soldiers first saw them they said they were only big enough for a dog. There’s two of us in here.
Sometimes, on courses or at workshops, as an ice-breaker you’re asked to say something interesting about yourself. It’s a cruel torture for introverts like myself. My line, which is really about someone else, is that my grandfather was born one-hundred and one years before me, in 1864, around the time of the burning of Atlanta. In genealogy terms it’s a big head-start, two generations and I’m all the way back in the mid-Victorian era. An off-shoot of all this, an important one to me, is...
We were in Cardiganshire, Ceredigion, over the end of May. ‘We’ being my wife, Sally, my youngest daughter, my dog and myself. We go to Wales most years. I grew up there and have a brother and sister who wisely never fought their way out. Why would you, with nook beaches backed by green hills and purple mountains, a sunset-sea to the west, fish and chips on the beach and a mandatory ice-cream every day.
People have been sending me stories lately; lots and lots of them. I'm a story magnet. This isn't some random cosmic aberration, it's because I'm helping to run a short story competition on behalf of the Steyning Festival and the West Sussex Writers. As the final day for entries approached, I received more and more stories every day; a gush of stories, a torrent of stories. They arrived faster than I could process them.