Wednesday, 2 September 2015

#Welcome Wednesday guest is Margaret Johnson

My #Welcome Wednesday guest is Margaret Johnson. 

Her novel A Nightingale in Winter  (Omnific Publishing) was featured in my #Monday Moments last week and today she's here to tell us a bit more about this intriguing World War I story she's created from some very harrowing sources.  

My novel A Nightingale in Winter is about Eleanor, a volunteer nurse (VAD) who is serving in France during the First World War. Eleanor has a troubled past, and at the beginning of the book she is running away to start a new life – one where she can be useful and unafraid. She wants only to get on with her work and to keep herself to herself, but fate has other ideas.
The start of her journey is certainly not the escape from fear she’d hoped for, since the Sussex, the ship on which she is sailing to France, is torpedoed by a German U-boat. This is based on a real life event, which I first read about in Lyn McDonald’s excellent book, The Roses of Noman’s Land.

As well as narrative, The Roses of Noman’s Land contains moving extracts from diaries and letters written by VADs, nurses, ambulance drivers and doctors working in hospitals at the Front during World War One. The diary extracts in particular whetted my appetite, inspiring me to travel to London to The Imperial War Museum to read more. Handling the original diaries was such a thrill. Some of them included sketches as well as words, and all of them brought their writers vividly to life. They were a huge help in making the dialogue authentic for the period, and they provided me with details of life and events I would have been unlikely to have found out any other way. 

This extract from a diary written by Daniel Sargent, an ambulance driver for the American Field Service, gave me lots of information about the torpedoing of The Sussex.

Cuthbertson and I were standing chatting on the deck at the stern when the torpedo struck. It was like hitting the rock of Gibraltar, a tremendous bang, and the whole front of the ship was blown completely off.

The noise was tremendous, people screaming and an ear-splitting sound as the ship let off steam. We were drenched in clouds of steam, but we were all right. Where I was, right in the stern, no-one was hurt. They shouted through loud-hailers that women and children were to go to the lifeboats and that the rest of us should go get a life-preserver. So we did that and put them on, and Cuthbertson and I stood at the rail looking at the people in the lifeboats, thinking that we were going to go down and that they’d be OK. Then we saw that most of the lifeboats were damaged and sinking, and there was nobody to man them. One had capsized when it was launched and all the people were killed or drowned, and we were still afloat. It was all pretty worrying. But Cuthbertson didn’t seem to be worried at all. He had his camera and he started taking pictures…

Sussex after being torpedoed
I was watching Grandos, the Spanish Composer. I knew him because we’d crossed together from the States in the Rotterdam, and he was on the Sussex on his way back to Spain. He had his wife with him, and it was very sad. She was a big fat woman – she much have been 300lb – and she couldn’t get into the lifeboat. He wouldn’t go without her, he wanted to be with her to the end. So he got her on to a raft, a very small raft and she was so very large. I’ll never forget the sight of her kneeling on this raft. It was the most terrible sight I’ve ever seen. Grandos was clinging to the raft as it drifted away, and I saw him just slip over the thing and drown. It was a terrible thing to see. 

Here’s how I used Daniel Sargent’s account in A Nightingale in Winter:

“Eleanor…” Dirk’s eyes were still closed. His voice was very weak.
“Shh. You really shouldn’t talk,” she told him.
He opened his eyes briefly. “I never was much good at doing what I ought to do.”
But despite his words, he lay quietly, and Eleanor knew it was a sign of how tired he was now. Before she could begin to contemplate the consequences for him if help didn’t arrive soon, Kit came back again.
“I spoke to one of the crewmen,” she told them breathlessly. “It seems they don’t think the ship will sink after all. They’ve sent a mayday message. The lifeboats are coming back.”
“Well done,” Eleanor told her. “That is good news.”
Kit didn’t look as relieved as would have been expected. She closed her eyes for a moment. “Eleanor, d’you remember the fat woman we saw?” she asked. “The one I was laughing at?”
The woman with the adoring husband. “Yes, I remember her.”
“Well, I saw her, in the water. Her husband had gotten her up onto a sort of a raft. I suppose it was part of the ship. She…she was too large to get into the lifeboats. Oh, Eleanor, she was just kneeling
there. It was such a dreadful, pathetic sight. You can’t imagine…” Tears squeezed their way from behind Kit’s closed eyes.
Eleanor felt tears gather in her own eyes.
“Her husband wouldn’t leave her,” Kit went on. “He couldn’t get onto the raft without knocking her in I suppose, so he was just clinging to the side. Then as I watched…as I watched…he just slipped into the water.”
“Grandos,” Dirk said, and they both looked at him, surprised.
“You knew him?” Eleanor asked and felt the slight affirmative movement of his head against her thighs.
“Crossed with him from the States on the Rotterdam. Spanish guy. A composer. Devoted to his wife.”

As part of my research I also looked at microfiche copies of newspapers of the time and read accounts of the torpedoing of The Sussex. How restrained these reports seem compared to the way we report disasters now – just a few restrained columns! Cuthbertson’s photographs were snapped up though, just as they would be today.

Margaret K Johnson began writing after finishing at Art College to support her career as an artist. Writing quickly replaced painting as her major passion, and these days her
canvasses lay neglected in her studio. She is the author of women’s fiction, stage plays and many original fiction readers in various genres for people learning to speak English. Margaret also teaches fiction writing and has an MA in Creative Writing (Scriptwriting) from the University of East Anglia. She lives in Norwich, UK with her partner and their bouncy son and dog.

Twitter: @margaretkaj

Buy  A Nightingale in Winter

Prime sources like you mention above can be difficult reading in themselves, but so useful to an author, Margaret. Thank you for sharing more with us, today, and best wishes with A Nightingale in Winter.

(Photos are in the public domain:


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