The Blue Bench – historical novel in Margate

Paul Marriner is the author of The Blue Bench, a work of historical and literary fiction set in 1920. The Blue Bench is a multi-layered novel focusing on the lives of two men and two women in the summer of 1920, as the country seeks to recover from The Great War.

He will be speaking about the book on Sunday 8 November at 4pm, and tickets are available here.

What was your inspiration for The Blue Bench?

Sometimes, when writing a novel, you start out with some vague ideas and themes; maybe a rough plot and perhaps some great characters. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, it comes together in such an exciting way and helps to increase awareness of something so important that it’s a privilege to write and a thrill when it connects with readers.

This is how it happened for me with The Blue Bench and why it came to be set in Margate.

Why did you feel compelled to write The Blue Bench?

I look for stories with drama, interesting characters I can identify with (both vulnerable and secure) and a place and time with a sense of melancholy and change. I’m especially engaged if I can recognise the protagonists’ conflicts and behaviours as still relevant today. All of which helps to explain why I was drawn to the time and events that led me to write The Blue Bench – set in 1920, during the summer leading up to the unveiling of the Cenotaph and interment of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November of that year.

By the end of The Great War Britain had lived (and many had died) through four years of unprecedented killing, maiming and destruction. The men who went to war returned changed, either physically, mentally, emotionally or socially – the last in the sense that during the war they had left their known environs and social groups and mixed with a wide range of fellow soldiers from all over the country and, to an extent, from around the globe as Commonwealth countries and the US armies joined the fight.

There was also, to a lesser extent, a mixing of classes and education levels that wasn’t always representative of their day to day pre-war lives, though the class system was inherent in the Army’s rigid structures – few officers came from the working classes. So, to that extent, any resentment at the class system that kept the working man ‘in his place’ was reinforced. But some of the middle and upper classes found themselves, either by luck or design, fighting alongside the lower classes, and of course, vice versa.

So, for many reasons (physically, mentally, emotionally, socially) the men who came home were often very different to those that left and many had new aspirations for the post-war lives they would build.

Back home the women had their own struggles. They were expected to keep households, raise children, form the backbone of their societies and support the country by taking on the jobs that the men were no longer around to do – and be paid less for doing so. And all the while dreading the news, or lack of it, from the front.

The statistics regarding deaths and casualties during the war are staggering. Sometimes we become inured to the numbers, simply unable to comprehend their scale – so I will just add that in many ways it’s even worse than the numbers you see. Consider that every single death represents someone who was a son, possibly a father, possibly a brother and cousin, or a fiancé or an uncle or a Godfather … you get the idea. Each death touched many lives. And when you also take into account that many of those people would have lost more than one loved one, then both the breadth and depth of the scale of those affected becomes astonishing.

And when the men came back from the war the women were obliged to give them back their jobs. The establishment’s view was that the men had to be re-integrated to society and, in many cases, would resume responsibilities for looking after wives and families. But we can assume and appreciate that many women were unhappy at losing new found independence, especially if they were unmarried and needing to support themselves. And the state of not being married was more common, due to the availability of fewer men as a result of the war. This trend had begun during Victorian and Edwardian days as the young men were sent off to far flung reaches of the Empire – either to keep it under control or seek their fortune (or both, in many cases).

Reintegration of men into society was further complicated by so many disabled veterans looking for work and finding little. Army disablement pensions were not generous by any means and many relied on charity for food and accommodation.

Throw into this mix the economic difficulties that came from having to fund a war and it’s easy to see how the country in 1920 can be considered as quite broken in many ways.

Prior to the war there had been an increase in debate and action regarding both workers’ rights and womens’ rights – political movements, often supported by growing unions for the former and the suffragists’ movements for the latter being obvious examples. To an extent, the war had put these on hold but with the signing of the armistice came an opportunity to pick up where they had been left. And in the case of the unions, perhaps with some added encouragement taken from the political movements in Russia that would lead to direct action and revolution – and Russia had been our allies in the war that had just ended.

So yes the war was over, but the peace couldn’t quite get started. Britain was ready for change but mired in grief – fertile ground for a writer and as I read about this period in preparation for writing The Blue Bench I felt that despite the malaise there was enough of a residue of hope and sufficient energy for change to rebuild the country, both physically and spiritually. I wanted to write a story of ordinary people trying to deal with the past while finding a way to build their futures. It just needed a catalyst. And Reverend Railton’s idea seemed to me, the perfect inspiration.

Reverend David Railton MC served as an army chaplain on the Western Front during World War One, where he was awarded the Military Cross for saving men under fire. The idea for the grave of the unknown warrior came to him after he had seen a simple cross pencilled with the words ‘An Unknown British Soldier’ in a back garden near Armentieres in France in 1916. He understood the potential for a formal grave recognising the sacrifice of so many which could provide a focal point for the country as a whole but also give comfort to the bereaved that perhaps their loved one had returned. Thus the grave is not only a symbol of sacrifice at a national level, it is also an actual grave for one man that may provide solace for many whose loved ones never returned. In this way it is a uniquely powerful concept. And, for my novel, it could provide the thread that pulled together the main and sub-plots.

It meant that Britain 1920 had all the right ingredients for a story of everyday people impacted by national events, trying to make sense of the past while finding love and companionship and building a future.

I quickly developed the principal characters whose stories I wanted to tell, covering grief, love and hope as well as touching on a number of themes:

The concept of national grief/consciousness

Integration of veterans, especially those wounded

Female/female companionship due to lack of men

Facial reconstruction surgery and advances in battlefield first aid

Class system and rise of labour movement

Women’s suffrage and emancipation

Increasing secular society

Modernisation of British society (eg. Music/literature)

Start of US influence

But for all the themes touched on, it’s essentially a story about people helping each other deal with the past and find a way forward.

But one thing was missing – location. I wanted the location to act as a symbol of the nation, somewhere that had thrived before the war but was now struggling due to the post war issues; somewhere that had been a place of joy and needed to reinvent itself, to be part of the new world that was coming. I felt an established seaside resort would be ideal, especially as it provided for one of the characters to be a performer. Then, when I realised that Reverend Railton had served at St. John’s, Margate, after the war, everything clicked seamlessly into place. Margate had the connection to history I needed, some great locations (like The Winter Gardens) and was perfect for the characters I had in mind.

I wanted Margate to be another character in the story, so I used many real locations: The Winter Gardens, the harbour, the steamer jetty (no longer there), the church (Holy Trinity, no longer there), cinemas, Dreamland leisure park, the clock tower, even an artists’ supplies shop that was called Lovelys. Just about theonly key location in the book that isn’t real is the pub called The Compass – it’s an amalgamation of several pubs. And, most importantly, the locations were chosen because they were real places where everyday people lived out their lives. Above all, I wanted my characters to be real.

So, I now had the background, national and personal dilemmas, the location, the people and the core narrative – everything I needed for The Blue Bench. I spent the next 18 months writing, re-writing and editing and the reaction from readers has meant the effort and attention to detail was all worthwhile. It was a privilege to write.

Why is The Blue Bench relevant to today?

I guess the question is really, ‘If the immediate post war period provided the conditions to foment change, now we’re a hundred years on, did it happen?

Well, just as I’m no Historian, nor am I a Sociologist. But when I look at the list of themes above I wanted the book to touch on it seems to me that many of the problems have been partially addressed but certainly not solved. Take three examples:

Integration of disabled men and women (I make no distinction here between physical and mental health issues). Regardless of the source of the disablement are we much better at integrating the disabled into day to day society? Better than 1920? Certainly. But have we solved it? Certainly not. For example, the success of initiatives such as the Paralympic games is encouraging but I’m not sure the awareness and public support shown at that level filters down sufficiently to the day to day issues faced by so many. We should ask ourselves if the amount of progress is sufficient for 100 years of trying.

Women’s Rights. The #metoo movement is surely an indication that women are still not treated as equals in many areas, both professional and domestic. 100 years on it’s still apparent that women are all too often paid less than men for doing the same job. It’s true that the suffrage issue has been addressed but there remains an inherent bias towards men in so many areas and attitudes that is rooted in previous centuries. Many of these attitudes are so ingrained that we men often don’t even know we have them. I think it’ll take a few generations still, but I’m encouraged by the changes I see in my children’s generation.

Class. As education became accessible and then mandatory for all, I think there was an assumption that Class differences would be eroded – that we would morph into a meritocracy. In many parts of Britain this has not been the case, though it may be more an issue of economics than Class. So, I won’t say too much about this here except it is still often true to say, ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know.’ Again have we moved on 100 years? Probably yes. Have we moved on sufficiently? I don’t believe so. Many will feel Britain is not even close to a meritocracy.

So yes, there was progress after The Great War. Has it been enough? No.

And there are other key issues that I didn’t put in the list above: Attitudes to Race and Ethnicity, Attitudes to LGBT and Transgender communities, Attitudes to global integration (including, or not, Brexit)

Each of those can be viewed from a World War 1 perspective too, and it would be interesting to do so – but I fear we don’t have the space here and I’m probably not sufficiently qualified.

Perhaps another day.

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