Tuesday, 25 March 2014

How did the Friends (=Quakers) fight Fascism?

Having spent two years in the beautiful old wood-panelled Quaker library at Friends House on Euston Road, reading 1930s magazines and notes from pacifist meetings in wartime, I was really excited to be invited to their history group tonight to talk about my novel, Of Love and Other Wars.

Jennifer, the lovely librarian, had helped me with many, many eccentric queries during my research (minutes from the Friends Ambulance Unit committee in 1941, records from the Germany Emergency committee, letters from wartime ambulance workers in Greece... the list goes on). It was nice to be able to show her the end result. Reading from my book in the room where I had sat with my pencil, messy notes and laptop gave me an unexpected feeling of completion.

My novel is about conscientious objectors during World War Two, a subject that still divides opinion in Britain. To get a feel for the audience, I like to start each reading by asking if there are any conchies in the room, or anyone related to conchies. Until tonight, the total show of hands had always been zero.

Well, at the Quaker library, half the room seemed to raise their hands. This was exciting as well as terrifying. I am used to talking about ambulance workers, tribunals, land work and jail terms to a general audience. It was quite a different matter to read a scene set at a wartime tribunal and wonder if the audience members felt it rang true - because after all, they had been there. Thankfully they seemed to enjoy the chapters. I also shared some letters from the archive, such as note written by a pacifist window cleaner in Chingford to his clients. He explains why he won't be able to clean their windows for a while (he lost his tribunal and is going to jail, but still has long-term hopes for an international brotherhood united by Esperanto, of which he is a teacher. It's an incredibly sincere and heart-breaking note that ends with an apology for not being a better window cleaner: "my heart was not in window-cleaning.")

We left plenty of time for questions and contributions, and I wish I had recorded them. People talked about their families' experiences as well as their own. One woman had brought a stunning photo of her mother, a committed pacifist, wearing a sandwich board that advertised a "Women's Day of Peace". Another photo showed her equally dashing father - a fighter pilot! He decided to fight because his sister was trapped in occupied France.

It was fascinating, and a great reminder of how many stories are out there, waiting to be told.

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