Trilby Kent is a novelist, children’s author and journalist. She read History at Oxford University and completed a MSc in Social Anthropology at the LSE; Silent Noon was written as part of a PhD project that was completed in 2013, from which this post is partially extracted. She has previously contributed to The History Girls on the subject of writing race in children’s fiction; her Young Adult novel, Stones for my Father, went on to win the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Prize and the Africana Book Award in 2012.
September 1953. Fourteen-year-old Barney Holland is promised a fresh start when he is offered a place at a boarding school on the remote North Sea island of Lindsey. Instead, he is shunned by his peers both for his status as a charity pupil and for being the replacement of a recently deceased student, the popular Cray. The arrival of Belinda Flood, a housemaster’s daughter stigmatized by her expulsion from another school, provides Barney with an unexpected ally. Both outsiders soon fall under the influence of charismatic senior pupil Ivor Morrell, who reigns over the forbidden corners of the school.
A gruesome find and the friendship with a local woman rumoured to have been a wartime collaborator draw the three into an increasingly dangerous web of personal and social shame. Gripped by mounting horror at his discovery of secrets harboured by the isolated school community, Barney personifies the struggle of a young peacetime generation finding its way out of the shadow of war.
“The past that’s not past yet” (a wonderful phrase coined by Damon Galgut) is a major theme of Silent Noon, which features schoolmasters living with the memory of war and schoolboys who have inherited its legacies, both proud and shameful. Having previously written novels set at the turn of the last century and in the 1930s, I had some experience of evoking historical periods poised on the brink of calamity. Writing a novel set during the post-war years offered a new challenge, for the great drama of the age already lay behind my characters, in the recent past.
My fear of slipping into nostalgia for the 1950s and school stories of that period was slightly abated by the fact that the book is, in some ways, not about the 1950s at all, but rather about the way in which the 1940s lingered, and the 1960s failed to arrive quickly enough.
Furthermore, the fact that ‘my’ islands – Lindsey and St Just – are entirely fictitious allowed me a certain freedom. I was able to identify a moment when Britain and its allies had been victorious in a war fought to defend its borders and beliefs, but which was followed by an anti-climactic unease and sense of isolation in the world, as well as a reversion to conservatism, fears about an uncertain future, and shortages of resources. Today, still, we face an energy crisis, grapple with concerns about international terrorism and war, fear North Korean nuclear tests, bemoan unsocial youth, warily eye China as a rising superpower, and partake in the steady rise of consumer culture.
Asked why she didn’t write about ‘modern times’, Isak Dinesen replied
“I do, if you consider that the time of our grandparents, that just-out-of-reach time, is so much a part of us. The present is always unsettled, no one has had time to contemplate it in tranquility… a painter never wants the subject right under his nose; he wants to stand back and study a landscape with half-closed eyes.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Thomas Mann in his question, “Is not the pastness of the past the profounder, the completer, the more legendary, the more immediately before the present it falls?”
As Guernsey and Jersey felt too small to reinvent for the purposes of my novel, and their wartime stories too familiar, I opted to create a landscape from scratch. In constructing Lindsey Island, I borrowed several elements from the Scottish outpost of St Kilda – the crofts and screes, the outbreaks of infantile tetanus, the Chimney and use of gannets’ stomachs as containers – as well as the awkward position it occupied in the context of wider historical events.
I also researched the histories of two major Channel Island boarding schools to better understand their uses as physical spaces during and after the war. Ms. Dot Carruthers of Elizabeth College was able to fill in the fate of the buildings during the school’s exile to Derbyshire, while Mr. Ricky Allen of Priaulx Library expanded on the college’s use by the Feldkommandantur 515 (Guernsey branch). This was where civil government was administered, affecting everything from occupation costs and price control to police, education, and health services. It was also used as a timber lot; as Mr. Allen was able to quote from J. C. Sauvary’s ‘Diary of the German Occupation of Guernsey’: “Today I had to go to Elizabeth College to see Inspector Hannibal for a permit for coffin material” and “I went to Elizabeth College again yesterday, for a permit for timber. It is heartbreaking to see the old College”. Victoria College, too, was requisitioned to house a contingent of Hitler Youth, but not before masters and boys removed the honours boards and pictures from the Hall and boarded off the library. The 1930-56 college register records that a number of English-born masters and pupils were deported to Germany (“among them Mr. Kennett, Mr. Williams, and Crumpton (the College Porter)”), although their fates are not recorded.
There is an undeniable element of nostalgia associated with the Second World War and the decade that followed it, and one of my primary aims in writing Silent Noon was to resist falling into the trap of exploiting history for its shock value. It is a problem I partly evaded by constructing an imagined geography; but questions of historical appropriation remained, not least because they are of central interest to my characters. Kazuo Ishiguro has said,
“To some extent, we, in a very decadent way, felt envious towards writers who lived in oppressive regimes because they could just describe their everyday life, and it was immediately big and significant”:
“I think the solution that a lot people came to…is that you can either travel … Or you can go back in time. And you can keep talking about Britain, England, Europe, whatever. And you don't have to go back very far to a point when all these values that we take for granted today: democracy, freedom, affluence, all these things were really threatened.” (http://www.writersblocpresents.com/archives/ishiguro/ishiguro.htm.)
In this respect, the setting is crucial: isolated from the fields of battle, yet tarnished by memories of a shameful occupation, Lindsey Island is suspended between victimhood and collusion, honour and despair. It sits awkwardly on the fringes of Britain, forgotten in its ‘finest hour’. It rejects a standardized history. Like a teenager, it sulks, it dwells, and it guards its secrets jealously.
I always knew how I wanted the book to end: with an explosion, with a last-minute revelation, and with a freezing of time at the school’s sports day. In Silent Noon, I wanted to resolve with an ending-that-isn’t and a sense of Barney walking away from a specific moment and place while realising that these things – the here and now – would haunt him for the rest of his life. As such, his story concludes with a paen both to the end of his school days and to the complex era in which he comes of age – a past that is certainly not past, yet.
|Elizabeth College, Guernsey|
|Victoria College, Jersey|