Since the spring, I’ve been writing a novel about a woman’s relationship with her elderly father as he loses his memory (there have been various blog posts about it during the year, most recently Prisoner of Memory, in November).
The good news as we begin the new year is that I have now reached the end of the book. I’ve written the final scene, the final sentence. I have a draft of my novel. That feels good, but not quite as good as you might think. You see, I’ve always enjoyed writing, but now begins the process of editing – and editing is something I don’t enjoy at all, however necessary it might be. And one thing that is already clear from reading it through is that there is quite a lot of work still to be done. Actually, there’s even a fair bit of writing still to be done: certain events that hitherto have been glossed over quite briefly need to receive a fuller dramatic treatment. But that’s not such a bad thing – like I said, writing is a lot more fun than editing (not that there isn’t a lot of that to do as well!)
So, to quote Churchill (appropriately enough for a novel that is partly about the second world war), this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
I should end with a little excerpt, shouldn’t I? Herbert has never talked to his daughter about his war service in the RAF. As his memory goes and he starts to live further and further back in the past, she enlists the help of his old friend Dennis to encourage him to open up ….
Dennis starts talking explicitly about his own role in the war, putting bullets and bombs into planes. He’s been playing this cautiously too. I think he wants to take Dad to the next step as much as I do. This has to be the moment …
“You must both be very proud. I mean, of the part you played in defeating Hitler. Not many people these days can say they contributed to something like that. I think it’s a great thing that you did.”
“Well, I don’t know about proud,” says Dennis. “You wanted to do your bit, like, and you were glad that you were doing something useful, not just sitting at home twiddling your thumbs. But I never thought what I did was anything special. I was just a glorified labourer in a uniform, really. It’s the ones who went over and risked their lives night after night. The ones like Herbert here, them are the ones what can really be proud.” He turns to Dad. “We’d never say it to your face, like, but we looked up to you.”
“He’s right, Herbert. You should be proud of what you did.”
I’d hoped that this might be the key that unlocked him. But he didn’t respond straight away, instead staring down at his feet for a few seconds before looking me straight in the eye.
“I thought I’d be proud of meself an’all, when I joined up. Sticking it up to Adolf, and all that. And maybe what we did had to be done. But I ain’t proud of it. Oh, I was for a while, after the first few trips, when we still thought we was dropping bombs on factories. That was until the word got out that at night – and it almost always was at night – we couldn’t hit a barn door with a shotgun. Turns out you were lucky if you even got to hit the right town.
“I thought, well, surely they’re going to have to do something now, to give us some hope of actually hitting the bloody target. I don’t know, some special bombsight or something. And I suppose they did give us the H2S radar and that. But Bomber Harris, he just turns round and says, ‘nope, as long as you hit the town somewhere or other, that’s just fine by me.’
“I tell you what did for me. That night over Hamburg in forty-three. There had already been several raids before us and the place was just a mass of flame. There wasn’t much opposition that night – we just flew in, dropped our bombs and flew out again. The rest of the crew were chuffed to have an easy night of it. But I was sat in the turret looking back at it. I’ve never seen so much fire in my life – there was a tornado of it eating up the city like some kind of monster. And I thought, there are people down there, there are children down there. Is this what I joined up to do then? Drop bombs on people and burn them to death.
“Bomber Harris was pleased as punch with that night’s work. ‘Butch’, we used to call him. Short for ‘butcher’. He thought the more people we killed, the better it was. He didn’t bother much about killing his crews neither. It was all about tonnage of bombs, for him. Couldn’t care less about how many children they killed, or how many men got killed dropping ‘em.
“Maybe we had to do what we did. Maybe it helped win the war. I don’t know. But don’t tell me I should be proud of it.”