Ten years ago I decided to take advantage of my retirement by doing some writing. As I had earlier taught some aspects of twentieth century history at A level, it seemed sensible to use my knowledge of that period as the background to my books. I undertook a great deal of research; background reading, examination of documents, viewing archive film and speaking to eye witnesses. The result was that my first novel THE BLUE PENCIL was published in 2012. Appeasement of the dictators by the British government was at the heart of this thriller.
Three years later my only (to date) non-fiction title, LIBERATING BELSEN: Remembering the soldiers of the Durham Light Infantry, was in print. Parts of that regiment were responsible for bringing to that dreadful place some semblance of closure as they buried the dead, worked with the Royal Army Medical Corps in tending the sick, helped to bring those Nazis guilty of war crimes to justice before reducing the camp to ashes in May 1945.
Shortly afterwards, my second novel, TWO FAMILIES AT WAR, appeared. One or two characters from THE BLUE PENCIL returned but, at the heart of the narrative, was the theme of crime during the blitz. The good guys were a Jewish family: mother, father and teenage son, who had fled from Germany in June 1939. Their enemies were a crime family who lived close-by in North London.
THE SUMMER OF ’39 is my most recent novel, published in 2017. Roger Martin, the journalist hero of THE BLUE PENCIL, is the central character of this tale which is spread over the five months leading to the outbreak of the Second World War and tells of the alliance between the German secret service, the Abwehr, and the IRA who conducted an extensive and intensive bombing campaign on the UK mainland in 1939/1940.
I enjoyed writing these four books. I pitched the Belsen book at older teenagers so that they might understand just how brutal the German concentration system was. At the end I posed a series of questions for young people to answer. On reflection THE BLUE PENCIL started too slowly and the early pages contained too much unnecessary padding. It picks up before the half-way point and the climax is both exciting and satisfying. I was happy with TWO FAMILIES AT WAR and THE SUMMER OF ’39, both of which had well-drawn characters and credible plots which were fictionalised versions of real events. THE SUMMER OF ’39 was what Graham Greene might have called ‘an entertainment.’
So, what to do next? Another book about the Second World War? Who knows? What I do recognise is that, without that horrendously destructive conflict, dozens of authors, myself included, would have had nothing to write about. Understanding this gave me a slight sense of guilt. Why should I gain satisfaction from a bloody war which killed upwards of fifty million, displaced millions of others, left many of Europe’s great cities and towns as piles of rubble and left much of Eastern Europe in the grip of Soviet dictatorship for more than forty years.
Since the end of the war, Europe has been at peace for more than seventy years. From the beginning of the Hundred Years War in 1337, European countries have been involved in more than four hundred wars. A vast majority of these have been relatively small affairs, border disputes for example, but the big ones have been really big. The Thirty Years War, (1618-1648) , the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945) have, collectively, resulted in a catastrophic loss of life, soaring costs and national bankruptcies, famine and disease. From 1945, a group of men together began to find ways of ending this blood-letting. These far-sighted people, predominantly politicians, were led by the French Foreign Minister Robert Schumann and they set about creating a structure that they hoped would bring about the end of these centuries old conflicts. Targeted first were the coal and steel industries, these being the chief sources of weapons of war. In 1950, the European Coal and Steel Community was established with age-old enemies France and West Germany being joined by Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Expansion came in 1957 when the Treaty of Rome founded the European Economic Community, or common market.
So successful was the common market, others clamoured to join. Denmark, Ireland and the UK were the first of these in 1973. Greece, Spain and Portugal followed in 1980. Austria, Finland and Sweden became members in 1995 and later many of those East European countries who, until 1991, had been members of the Warsaw Pact, bringing the present-day total to twenty-eight. In 2012 the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for over six decades having contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”
A little over two years ago, the United Kingdom voted, by a narrow majority, to leave the European Union. I’m only guessing here but a majority of those who voted ‘leave’ did so out of total dissatisfaction with the Conservative government of the day, and their austerity policies, and with a concern that the EU policy of open borders which would threaten jobs. This was a theme rigorously promoted by the United Kingdom Independence Party and, in a promotional poster produced by that party, showed its leader, Nigel Farage, leading a large group of so-called immigrants on to UK shores. Many of those pictured were in fact folk from North African and Middle Eastern countries that had become destabilised by military intervention from, amongst others, the United Kingdom.
Shortly after the referendum, I was sitting in Eldon Square Gardens in Newcastle-upon-Tyne when a member of staff from the nearby shopping centre approached me and, looking at the diverse races enjoying the afternoon sunshine, said
“It’s like f…..g Cairo here. I’ll be glad when we’re out of Europe.”
“But Cairo isn’t in Europe,” I responded.
“Oh. Isn’t it?” he replied.
I very much doubt whether the voters of Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland, Swansea, Swindon and other working-class towns give two hoots as to whether the United Kingdom is part of a single market, customs union, subject to European Law or to the existence of a hard or soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ campaigns were appallingly conducted, the former by indifference and the latter by misinformation. The then Prime Minister, David Cameron, (a recent poll of academics voted him the third worst Prime Minister since 1900, only Alec Douglas-Home and Anthony Eden were below him) displayed weakness and indecision throughout the campaign. The Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, with his well-known dislike of markets, was hardly much better.
The result of all this is that Britain now stands on the verge of leaving an organisation which has brought peace and prosperity to Europe for seventy-three years. Like a majority of folk, I don’t pretend to know the full effects of this but many people, whose views I respect, believe that this will be catastrophic.
Even arch-leaver (or is it political opportunist?) Boris Johnson praises his hero Winston Churchill for proposing a ‘United States of Europe’ in the 1930s, a suggestion that Churchill repeated at the end of the Second World War. Now Johnson is one of those leading us into the abyss of independence from Europe, cutting our links with our partners at a time when external threats from terrorism have never been greater. Whatever it takes, Britain must NOT leave the European Union.
David Lowther’s books are published by Sacristy Press – http://www.sacristy.co.uk @SacristyPress