Friday 7 May 2021

Journeys with Miss Graham - Celia Rees

Every book is a journey. A journey from first idea to publication with all the adventures, challenges, pitfalls and complications that an actual journey can entail. Even after a book has been published, its journey is not over. It is out in the world, beyond the author's control, subject to the vagaries of the market, the judgement of readers and critics, transitioning from hardback to paperback with a new cover and in this case a new title. Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook, which I have blogged about here and here , is now Miss Graham's War.

When a book is published, it does not necessarily leave you. Miss Graham's War was eight years in the writing, a continual presence which comes back in glimpses and flashbacks. 

In the stasis of Covid, with travel impossible, I thought of the journeys taken by the eponymous Miss Graham and the journeys I had taken to follow her. It isn't completely necessary to visit the places that you are writing about, of course. The internet is a great resource, full of images and virtual tours. I find Trip Advisor particularly useful. There can't be anywhere on the planet that doesn't have an accompanying video or photomontage thoughtfully uploaded by a helpful traveller but, for me, research trips are important, giving travelling a clear purpose, sharpening awareness and observation. Research is an adventure in itself. It creates it's own stories and spying and writing have much in common: tracking your characters, their movements, where they go, who they meet. 

 Miss Graham's journey begins in London. My research began with scouting locations. I went on spy walks with my daughter, Catrin.  We went to the squares near Paddington Station to find Dori's house. It was now a particular house in a particular square. Then the journey is back through time to London in the war.

Dori's house was close to Paddington Station. One side was a great yawning cavity, the buildings flanking the gap showered with beams wedged against the walls. Dori's row was more or less intact, although some of the houses were boarded, either unsafe or waiting for their owners to return.
Miss Graham's War

From Dori's square we went to Baker Street to find SOE Headquarters. The building has kept its anonymity and is now offices above a Holland & Barratt. At the bottom of Baker Street, is a porticoed building which was also rumoured to be used by SOE. It was perfect. Not only that but just down the road was a spy shop selling surveillance equipment. Synchronicity. Always a good sign when researching. 

From London, Miss Graham goes to Northern Germany to her job with the Control Commission. She went by steam train from Liverpool Street Station to Harwich, then across to the Hook of Holland, on through Holland and into Germany, finally arriving in Hamburg. 

 I couldn't take that same journey, but I could map it in the Miss Graham's Notebook. For every book I keep a journal, just as one might when going on a real journey. It is a record of the progress of the book from first ideas to completion. 

Hamburg Station 1946
When she arrived in Hamburg, the station would have looked like this. Hamburg had been devastated by some of the most concentrated Allied bombing of the war. I flew to Hamburg and, of course, the city has healed but the church of St Nickolai has been left as it was, as a memorial, much like the cathedral in Coventry, Miss Graham's home city. She had seen devastation before, but not on the scale that confronted her in Hamburg. This is where fiction and life merge. Miss Graham is based on my aunt who took the same journey. Her story was where the book began. These and some of the photographs  she sent back to the family to show them what Germany was like in 1946. 

From Hamburg, her journey took her to Lübeck, the Hanseatic port on the Baltic where she was stationed. Lübeck had much in common with Coventry, both smallish, compact, medieval cities, both laid waste by bombing. Lübeck by the R.A.F on Palm Sunday, 1943; Coventry by the Luftwaffe on the evening of November 14th, 1940. Both city centres were devastated, both had cathedrals and churches destroyed.

When I arrived in Lübeck there were very few reminders of the destruction wrought on the city. The Marienkirche had been re-built, its iconic copper clad towers restored. Much of Lübeck's historic centre had been painstakingly re-developed, although a swathe of modern buildings through the centre indicated where the worst of the destruction had been. 

Marienkirche, Lübeck, Palm Sunday, 1943
Marienkirche now

Holsten Gate
Holsten Gate, Lübeck 

Miss Graham's journey did not end at Lübeck, she went to Berlin. I followed her there. Again, the city had been restored, re-built and was utterly changed from the city she found in 1946. 

The destruction wasn't necessarily worse than Hamburg or any other city. It was just bigger, more spread out, going on for mile after mile. 

Miss Graham's War

Berlin 1945 from the air

Brandenburg Gate 2013
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1946

Berlin had suffered doubly, not only from Allied bombing, but from Russian shelling. It would continue to be scarred by the division of the city into Allied and Russian Zones which would eventually become East and West Berlin, divided by a wall with acres of no man's land on either side. The Wall was an extension and expression of the Iron Curtain, the division right across Germany and on through Europe, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. 

The Iron Curtain started on the Baltic coast, only a few miles from Lübeck. A museum close to its starting point commemorates the division of a nation and a continent. A collection of concrete posts and rusting barbed wire fences, shows the border's evolution from a simple stringing of barbed wire between wooden posts and ending with three or more wire barriers, guarded by regular turrets,  the gaps between them sewn by mines. A chilling reminder of the development of the Cold War and the growth of the distrust between east and west. 

The land was the same on both sides. Undulating country, fields dotted with cattle ... The Green Border began on the Baltic. Lübeck was only a couple of miles away from it. An arbitrary line marked with sagging strands of barbed wire strung between rough-hewn poles from the forest. It followed the contours of the land, an inexorable progress up hill and down dale, through farmyards, railway stations, even houses, all the way to Czechoslovakia. The Great Divide had begun. The line had been drawn. A visible border for an invisible war. 
Miss Graham's War

I couldn't have written that if I hadn't been to that place. 

We can't travel back in time but we can go to the places we are researching. You will always see something, learn something that adds to the book, sometimes in profound ways. In the Marienkirche in Lübeck, the great bells that fell from the tower in that night of destruction are still there, melted and embedded into the stone floor. 
Marienkirche, Cross of Nails  

The bells in the Marienkirche, Lübeck

Close by, in an alcove, which still bears the signs of fierce destruction is a Cross of Nails sent from Coventry Cathedral to a sister city which had suffered just as cruelly. 

It seemed to me that in comparing Germany then to Germany now, I was witnessing a miracle of recovery and renewal, not just from the appalling and utter destruction of the Second World War, but the further bitterness and scarring of a Germany divided. 

I chose to start Miss Graham's War, not in 1946 but on the 10th November, 1989 and the falling of the Berlin Wall, a reminder of just how far and fast we have come on the road to redemption and reconciliation. 

Part of the Berlin Wall in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum

Celia Rees
Miss Graham's War, HarperCollins,  paperback publication, June 10th 2021


Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

Fascinating to read about your own journey in writing this wonderful book, Celia! It must have been such an adventure to trace Miss Graham's steps and immerse yourself in her story. The connection with your aunt is lovely and I am sure she would be delighted to know that she had inspired you to embark on this journey.

Congratulations on the imminent release of the paperback, with its new striking title! Many more readers will continue to enjoy getting to know Miss Graham, her friends and her inspiring story.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Well done, Celia, on this next step along the road with Miss Graham. I had not realised you would be changing the title for the paperback. It's a terrific story and deserves to do well. Carol x

Sue Purkiss said...

Who could have thought, looking at all that destruction, that Europe could ever be rebuilt? Extraordinary. Good luck with the paperback: it’s such a good book! I can see the logic behind the shorter title, though it must feel a bit sad to lose the centrality of the cookbook idea.

Celia Rees said...

Thank you, Caroline. I certainly hope so!

Celia Rees said...

Thanks, Carol, and for your support. Not entirely my decision to change the title but I trust the publisher knows what is best...

Celia Rees said...

Thanks, Sue. Yes, re. Title, sometimes have to bow to commercial considerations...

Celia Rees said...

Thanks, Sue. Yes, re. Title, sometimes have to bow to commercial considerations...

Penny Dolan said...

Wishing the new title good speed into the shops.

A really interesting post, especially when so much research has been confined this last while. Great to see some of the collection of images in your beautiful journal.