So today I thought I would share a little bit of what I do and why. I write because I love it. I can’t think of anything else I would rather be than a writer. I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was a little girl. I used to make up stories and tell them to my toys and later to my friends. I even used to write stories for my boyfriend in airmail letters when I was living in Vienna and he in London. We’ve now been married for 29 years, so the stories can’t have been too bad.
However, in the end I wanted to write about real people, not ones I had made up in my head. I find that the lives people lead are fascinating. There is no such thing as a typical person or a ‘normal’ reaction and that is what began to interest me. I was working in the art world but found myself more drawn to the artists themselves than to their work. I wanted to know what made them tick. I remember interviewing the sculptor Anthony Caro and his wife, the painter Sheila Girling, about their lives together as artists. Tony told me that it was Sheila who chose the colours for his early sculptures because she had a better eye for colour than he did. I was tickled pink by that, especially as no one had ever interviewed them together before, so the question was not one he had been asked. I like titbits like that. They are just a little quirky.
Anthony Caro's Early One Morning 1962
Jean Hammond with her two grandmothers c. 1940
In researching and writing Jambusters I constantly found women replying to my request for interviews with ‘oh, I won’t have anything interesting to tell you.’ When someone says that my ears prick up and I think: ‘oh, you don’t, do you? Well I think you’re wrong…’ And more often than not they tell me some glorious detail. A woman in an Oxfordshire WI remembered her father coming into the kitchen where members of the Produce Group were making vast quantities of jam. One of the ladies was complaining that she was wasting precious jam as she could not get every last drop from the bottom. So he took a wooden spoon outside to his tool shed and half an hour later returned with a spoon that had a flat side and a sharp point. This was ideal for scraping the jam off the bottom of the pan and everyone was delighted with the design. Needless to say it was copied. I find other gems in diaries, memoirs and in odd collections of notes in the Imperial War Museum archives. It was there that I found Mr Fagg, who worked in the Board of Trade in the war, supervising coupons and taking responsibility for the width of the gusset of women’s knickers, the amount of metal in over-sized corsets and the length of men’s socks. You literally couldn’t make it up. He is one of the key players in Fashion on the Ration.
William Buller Fagg in his Home Guard uniform
I also found one of my favourite facts of all time at the IWM. Lord Nuffield, the great car maker and generous philanthropist, supplied all the women’s services with sanitary towels for the entire Second World War. These things were new-fangled and very expensive and he knew the young women in the services would not be able to afford them or indeed get guaranteed supplies. It was an act of immense generosity and far-sightedness on his part and no one knows about it. Except you do now! They were known as Nuffield’s Nifties. Writing women’s history is not always easy. There are a few of us who do it: Jane Robinson, Janie Hampton and Midge Gilles to name three I know well. We sometimes find it hard to get taken seriously by male historians who write about grave matters like tanks and planes and battles and generals with handlebar moustaches. In a list of the top 50 historians published last year there were just four women and of those I was the only one who writes about women.
Women are at the heart of my next book, too, but this one contains explosions and secret codes, radio operators and stealth. I wonder how that will be received?