My talk on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Scottish_Women's_Hospital_people_killed_in_WWI_01

Scottish Women’s Hospitals Roll of Honour courtesy of Wikimedia commons

I am very proud and excited to announce that my talk on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals will be broadcast on Radio Adelaide 101.5 this coming Monday evening at 6pm on the segment On Service Voices.

Here is a link to the broadcast.

On Service Voices – Monday  02.12.19  from 6 to 7pm Adelaide Time (or listen again any time after 7pm)

DEBBIE ROBSON:  The SWH and the Aussie women who served in it.

This month 102 years ago, a British female doctor called Elsie Inglis died.  Elsie was almost 50 years old when World War One was declared. She offered her medical skills to the War Office, and was resoundingly rejected with the words, “My good lady, go home and sit still.”

Sitting still at home had never been one of Elsie’s strengths.  She contacted the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies with the intention of forming independent medical units staffed by women, in order to support Allied troops where they were needed most. She was able to establish the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service (the SWH), and they sent medical teams to Belgium, France, Serbia and Russia.  Many Australian women served in these units. They saved countless lives during WW1 and alleviated untold suffering. Today Debbie Robson brings us the story of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, and some of the Australians who served in them.

Please tune in and I hope you enjoy hearing about these marvellous women.

Narrabeen Beach

Last weekend I walked Narrabeen Beach for the first time in over twenty years. It was a time to reflect on my life during that period and also to remember the poem I wrote back then. So much has happened but the beach is still pretty much as I remembered it from the 90s and I find that the poem is still true to the person I am now. Comforting somehow.
It seems the green coastal stabilisation scheme has done it’s job.

The poem was originally published in the Poetry at the Pub Anthology for 1998 – Untitled. I hope you enjoy it.

NARRABEEN BEACH

This is my beach and has been for a long time.
Beach Boys song aside and the surfers –
I’ve never waited for one of them to come
ashore yet they rock out there, astraddle,
patient as the wheeling gulls. But for me
history’s important. I need the whole story.
I need an old codger, sand ingrained
on his back from thousands of summers.
I remember when, he’ll say. Although Bondi
has the famous rescue of ’38 to tell, he must
have some memories worth hearing. Right now
I’ll seek him out. Right now in the yellow
fibro house with the turquoise window sills
two doors down. No, that’s a young couple
renovating. He’s in the units in Malcolm
Street and can’t recall a think, not even
the Sixties when it used to take forever
to walk from lake to beach or so it seemed
to me. That hill of sand has since eroded
into a green coastal stabilisation scheme.
The daisies flower amongst sober realisations
that the sand is washing away with everything
else – the long walk to the other side,
the lone surfer, the old codger years younger
telling stories of the first boat crew.

Debbie Robson

 

Always

Always

Are we defined by the things that haunt us? Perhaps haunt is a strong word. How about the things that won’t leave us alone? The things that keep popping back into our lives from time to time. For me it is two signs that I’ve been thinking about lately. The one pictured above I’m hoping will be the jumping off point for a new story.

The other one, another sign on a gate – Manderley – (obviously a fan of the book Rebecca) by the waters of the upper reaches of the Colo River, of all places. I was on a boat at the time cruising past and the gate literally opened out onto the water. I strained to see a house further up the path above the river but couldn’t. This was the 1970s and I’m suspecting that the house and the gate are long gone. From time to time over the years, I wonder idly about hiring a boat and finding the gate but the logistics of the whole endeavour keep putting me off. Still “Manderley” comes to me from time to time in both its manifestations.

Daphne du Maurier “discovered” Manderley in the late 1920s when the family began visiting Fowey in Cornwall. Sailing on her yacht Marie-Louise, Daphne had come across the enchanted woods on the Gribben Headland. “And looking north, inland, from the Gribben, I could just make out the grey roof of a house there, set in its own grounds amongst trees.”

On the first occasion Daphne and her sister Angela attempted to visit the house but the drive was three miles long and night fell before they reached the house. From Growing Pains: the shaping of a writer Daphne writes:

“The following day we tried another approach, taking M (Daphne’s mother’s) little car and driving to the west lodge, leaving the car at the gate. We walked across the park and through another gate, and came to the house. Grey, still, silent. The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. It was early still, and the house was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, nor the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the of the fairy-tale, until someone should come to wake her.”

She visits the house many times by herself, walking the grounds, peering inside and imagining the past life of the house. Of course it is Daphne herself who wakes the house. Twice. In real life she leases the house and does it up, making it her home and living there from 1943 to 1969 when she returns it the Rashleighs. In the world of fiction she creates Manderley, the house of Maxim de Winter.

“Childhood visits to Milton Hall, Cambridgeshire influenced the descriptions of Manderley, especially the interior. Menabilly provided the setting, the long drive and the woods hiding the house from the road. The inscrutability of it, you could say.

Inscrutable too was my “Always” gate. What was its meaning? When I first saw the green gate, I had recently moved to the area after my “always” marriage broke up. In the early days when I passed the sign, I would look at it with a quizzical fascination. How hopeful of them. In darker moods, I would think, How dare they! Now I just wonder (as my character Zach will do) what do they actually mean by this nonsensical word?

And what about he persistent image of a ‘Victorian Woman’ who later developed into The French Lieutenant’s Woman – the character Sarah Woodruff in the novel by John Fowles. This image wouldn’t go away either.

In a 1969 essay titled “Notes on an Unfinished Novel,” Fowles reflects on his writing process. He said he had an image during the autumn of 1966 of “A woman [who] stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea.” He determined that she belonged to a ‘Victorian Age’ and had ‘mysterious’ and ‘vaguely romantic’ qualities. He made a note at the time about the function of the novel saying:

“You are not trying to write something one of the Victorian novelists forgot to write; but perhaps something one of them failed to write. And: Remember the etymology of the word. A novel is something new. It must have relevance to the writer’s now – so don’t ever pretend you live in 1867; or make sure the reader knows it’s a pretence.” And not long afterwards The French Lieutenant’s Woman, one of the most intriguing, postmodern historical fiction novels of the 20th century is born.

A sign, a house, a person. Whatever the object of fascination is, it seems to me that often, if we let it, obsession turns into a creation.

Unknown Wedding Couple WW2 Identified!

Unknown wedding couple

And so it begins. Another photo that rears up and grabs me by the throat. Each photo that has done that to me always presents questions to be answered. In this one I can’t believe the answer isn’t readily available. I first caught sight of the photo of three people at a wedding just a few days ago whilst researching Australian war brides of WW2 for a talk I’m giving on 1 June.

The beautiful young woman is about to cut the cake, her bridegroom is holding her hand and in front of them stands a very pleasant, affable young pilot. I glanced below to find out the names of all three. The young wedding couple are unidentified. My first reaction was shocked disbelief. How can that be? Him with his movie star looks and her, very stylish and glamourous. She looks down a little as if to say, “Let the boys have their joke. I’m concentrating on the cake.”

And gosh, her wedding dress is not your run of the mill wartime dress, handmade or second-hand. It looks like something out of Hollywood. Yet I suspect she’s English. Where did she get the dress? It is almost timeless in it’s elegance. And what about him? Can’t you see him in the movies? I know we shouldn’t judge people by their appearances but such beauty in both of them would have definitely marked their lives in some way. They would have been an unforgettable couple for one thing. Gossiped about probably. Envied definitely.

Of course the most important question of all is, did he survive the war? Or was his fate similar to that of FO Allen, the affable young pilot, who died on the 20th June 1942 in a flying accident, not in the skies over Germany-occupied Europe but at Breighton, Yorkshire.

The caption of the photo, held by the Australian War Memorial, merely says that the bridegroom is an unidentified pilot of the RAAF who was presumably, like Allen, attached to RAF 41 Squadron and that he was Wing Commander with a DFC. Surely as a Wing Commander he shouldn’t be too hard to find, although the AWM evidently haven’t been able to.

So many questions. If he survived the war, did they live in the UK or return to Australia, depending possibly on whether she was British or Australian? Hard to tell from the photo. I would love to find out what she did before her marriage. Did she work in an art gallery? Perhaps she was a model? Or perhaps she was from a wealthy family? She obviously had beautiful taste and looks refined. Her new bridegroom suits her completely. Even the way they hold their heads in this photo is similar, also the line of their jaws and noses. Can you imagine their children?

The death of Allen, though, does cast a shadow. And why in England? That’s another burning question. Was he returning after a mission gone wrong? Barely able to make it home and then botching the landing because of injuries he sustained? When you look at WW2 as a whole, complete thing – it is just history and statistics. When you start to drill down and look at each man or woman that died as a result of war, any war, it’s hard not to wonder what the world would be like now if we hadn’t lost a swath of brave, marvellous people. Here’s hoping I can find out more about these three, standing smiling, caught in a moment in time forever.

Out of the blue – a surprise request

Scottish Women's Hospital at Ostrovo

Scottish Women’s Hospital at Ostrovo – Source: Wikimedia Commons

I am so excited! I have been invited by Helen McLeod Meyer from Radio Adelaide to give a talk on the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for her Christmas Day 2019 Scottish Broadcast.

Since 2010 when I stumbled upon this marvellous organisation I have been inspired by what this group of women achieved 100 years ago. There is so much history I want to cover: how the organisation was formed, how they efficiently ran dressing stations and field hospitals in France, Corsica, Greece, Macedonia, Romania and in Serbia and how they raised the standards of hygiene and disease management in the theatre of war.

That’s just to name a few points. Don’t get me started on all the wonderful women that worked in the field hospitals, including several Australians – Chief Medical Officers, orderlies, ambulance drivers, sanitation workers, nurses and surgeons. I am looking forward to putting together a half hour talk. The challenge will be to limit myself to that time frame when there is so much to tell.

On receiving an acceptance

Mr Peregrine at Typishly

You know how it is. You brace yourself when you see an email from a literary magazine. Oh, okay it’s back, you think to yourself. Oh well, I’ll see where else I can send it. You open the email and it’s an acceptance. If you are like me and not super confident of your abilities, it probably takes you a while to realise what the email is actually saying. That they want to publish your story! 

It is a wonderful moment and for me a rather long winding journey to this first acceptance. I first wrote some short stories in the 1980s. In the 1990s I wrote poetry (and had quite a few acceptanced) and then began writing historical fiction which pretty much consumed me. (And still does). Short story writing was not something I did anymore. But three years ago a window opened and ideas flew back in.

It has taken me a while to build up a reasonable amount of short stories that I felt worthy of sending out into the world. Spreadsheet in hand I have been submitting in earnest for a while now and lately receiving some very encouraging “please submit again”s. And then in May my first acceptance from Typishly. I have also received a second acceptance of another short story but there is nothing like your first. And here it is.

My talk on the research of Tomaree

On March 10th I will be giving a talk at Toronto FAW on the research behind Tomaree. Now that it is nearly 10 years since the book came out, the long view helps me put a few things in perspective.
Firstly I am so grateful that I began researching the book when I did. Officially that was 2 January 2002. My friend Wayne Sampey had kindly put together a group of local residents for me to question. I was blown away because I had only been expecting one or two and here I was with a whole group of strangers. I believe the discussion was recorded and I remember it as a lively one.
Back in 2002 there was still quite a few residents that I could interview about their personal reminiscences that I believe really helped with the tone of my book. Also two US soldiers were still alive and corresponding with them was marvellous. In my talk I hope to illuminate how they did help make Tomaree a better book. And more importantly the real Peggy and Tom were alive and living in California when I began the book in earnest.
Time is not kind of course and most of the people that were adults during World War II are now gone. One of the things I value now more than ever is the letters I exchanged with the real Peggy until her death in 2010. She read the beginning of Tomaree when it finally came out and said she was too moved by the first encounter between Tom and Peggy, to continue reading. I hope that I captured something of that first conversation that eventually led to a young Australian women giving up all that she had known, including her family and country, for a new life in America.
I believe I am speaking for about forty minutes. Of course I have hours and hours of memories regarding my experience of researching the novel but I hope I can touch on the main points and help give others the tools to bring the past alive.

Centenary commemorations of Dr Elsie Inglis and of the Scottish Women’s Hospital Movement

ELSIE INGLIS-LW

Descendants of pioneering Scotswoman Dr Elsie Inglis gathered at her grave today (within Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh) to mark the centenary of her death and pay tribute to her remarkable accomplishments in establishing and running the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during World War One. Photo source: Lenny Warren / Warren Media

The story of Elsie Inglis and The Scottish Women’s Hospitals is an amazing story that should be more widely known and I was so pleased to hear, earlier this year, that there would be Centenary commemorations for this marvellous woman at St Giles Cathedral on the 29th November. Although I couldn’t attend I was very excited to receive an invitation.

When war broke out in 1914 the Government put out a call for doctors and nurses to help on the front line. “Elsie was more than willing to play her part. She went first to the military authorities in Edinburgh and then to London to the War Office itself to offer her services, only to be told: “My good lady, go home and sit still.”

Of course she didn’t sit still. She went on to form what soon became known as the Scottish Women’s Hospitals which “served the war effort from 1914 to 1919 and were not finally disbanded until 1925. They started off in Calais supporting Belgian soldiers, but their main locations were four hospitals in France, two in Corsica, two in Greece, one in Macedonia, two in Romania and six in Serbia. There were also a number of satellite hospitals and dressing stations.

As a writer, discovering the existence of the SWH was life changing and of course led me to write a novel inspired by the movement and Australian women who worked at the field hospital in Ostrovo, including the novelist Miles Franklin. I am indebted to Alan Cumming for keeping me company on this journey of discovery and to Ann Wells for the gift of the booklet that was given out at the commemoration and from which I have quoted. Also for the use of the photo above. Luckily for historians and writers there are quite a few good biographies and memoirs written by members of the SWH. Contact me through this website and I can give you my full list.

 

Setting realistic writing deadlines

Deadline_logoOr not! So, it seems that I have left myself two weeks to complete my second draft of Paris Next Week. I’m not panicking though. Generally I find that the second half of a manuscript is less of a mess than the first half. I’m hitting my stride and have usually by this stage of the work, sorted out my characters.

What I have to do in the next two weeks is to read the rest of the manuscript, approximately 110 pages and check continuity and readability .(I’m not doing a lot of word by word scanning – that will be done in a later draft). The main thing I want to do in this second draft is to get rid of the remaining 106 hashtags which highlight points of research that I must check.

For instance the last three hashtags were:

The date the Clifton Gardens Hotel was built. 1871.
The date the amphitheatre at Bradleys Head was built. Yes, I know! Easy for some of you – in 2000 for Mission Impossible II.
An English perfume not too earthy and not too flowery that was around before WWI. White Rose by Floris.

These have been done and I now have 103 hashtags to go! Of course what I should have done to avoid this last minute deadline was to break down the number of weeks before my deadline and to set a realistic word count for each week. But hey, life has got in the way and time has flown. Hopefully you will be little less tardy with your planning.

The act of researching – time, place and memory

Chateau Chalon

Image – artwork by Maureen Boyle

About two years ago I bought a photographic print by Maureen Boyle. She had quite a lot of prints on display – small and large of photographs she had taken in France and I was taking my time choosing. After all, I was aware that I might be selecting an image for a scene or scenes of a manuscript not yet written. I asked her endless questions. Some scenes were of Paris, from memory, others were taken in the Jura region and several of a chateau were what particularly drew me.

But let me step back a little. In November 2013 an idea came to me about writing the earlier history of a character that appears in my novel Tomaree. She would be nineteen or twenty in the year 1924 and we would find out what happened to her in those early years to shape the character she would become in 1942. In 2015 I realised that I was actually writing a trilogy and that in the second book Sarah would travel to Paris and research the movements of her grandmother in the 1870s. I knew that a chateau would feature in the second novel but where would the chateau be and what would it look like?

A chateau not far from Paris fascinated me but then I discovered Maureen’s photos of Chateau Chalon in the Jura district of Eastern France. I looked at several, well I think I did, of the chateau and finally selected a white framed print 8 x 5. I think it is a marvellous photo, put it in my spare room and promptly forgot about it.

Life intervened, as it always does and I didn’t finish the first full draft of Paris Next Week until a week before Christmas last year. I am now embarking on a second draft – tidying up the prose and checking some 281 points of research that need to be verified, expanded on or simply deleted because they are not relevant to the 1920s. I.e. “comes a cropper”; I hash tagged this remark made by my character Christopher Hyatt as I wasn’t sure how old it was. Turns out it’s pretty old and safe for my character to say. Hastag deleted. Current count is 247.

Back to the photograph. On the evening of Bastille Day, at the French Friday markets in Newcastle I met Maureen again and went through her photographs. I picked up one of the chateau and I told her that I had bought possibly the same chateau, but from another angle. She said she had taken a lot of photos that day. As I studied the photograph she showed me the same photo but much larger. Excited I bought the larger photo. The details were so much clearer of course. Not only was there a little Juliet balcony but a small enclosed tower next to it. I took the photo home that night and yes, you guessed it, I had bought the same photo.

No, I don’t have a bad memory. I have a particularly good visual memory. It just seemed to me as I contemplated the photograph for the second time that it was a different photograph. I was of course seeing it with new eyes. I like to think that this is a nudge to look much closer at something that has become an everyday part of my life. After this, it will be very hard now to chose another chateau.

PS I’ve just discovered that this is a photo of a house near the Chateau. More digging is now obviously required.