Posts Tagged World War II

The Undercover Soundtrack – Iain Maloney

for logoThe Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is Not The Booker shortlister Iain Maloney @iainmaloney 

Soundtrack by Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, The Corries, Mogwai, R.E.M., The Smiths, The Pixies, The Sugarcubes, Pink Floyd, Yes, The Who

The Undercover Soundtrack Iain Maloney 1Like a lot of authors, it was music that got me into writing. It’s quite surprising (or maybe not) how many of us once harboured dreams of rock stardom. My first pennings were song lyrics but over a clichéd adolescence sitting in my room with a guitar and too many candles, I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to be the next Kurt Cobain. My lyrics morphed into poems until the urge towards narrative took hold and I turned to novels. Music never left me, though, and has informed everything I’ve written since.

My debut novel, First Time Solo, is entirely dependent on music, both as an aspect of the story and in the writing process. The main character, Jack, is a jazz trumpeter and, while training to be a RAF pilot in 1943, starts a band with three of his comrades. Music as a social lubricant, music as a shorthand between friends, music as a means of exploring other cultures, music as language, music as the backdrop for romance and more, all these are woven through the staves of the novel but for me, writing it, music was the window to the past. Before the war starts, Jack is a teenage boy, lonely in his bedroom with only his records, the radio and his subscription to the Melody Maker to keep him company. That’s an emotional world I can inhabit, but what about the reality, the differences between the 1990s and the 1940s?

Time machine

Historical fiction set after the invention of the gramophone is easier to write than that set before. Listening to a modern performance of Greensleeves does not immediately transport one to the Tudor court despite Henry VIII being suspected of its composition. Listen to Nat King Cole perform Straighten Up and Fly Right or Cab Calloway scatting through Nagasaki, however and you’re dropped into the bedrooms of teenagers in the 1940s with a crackling wireless and heavy 78s or the dance halls that defied the Luftwaffe. Jack’s internal monologue is seasoned with the music he loves and, in order to find his voice, I had to hear what he hears, think how he thinks. I didn’t go so far as to learn the trumpet – though I wanted to – but without jazz record shops and Youtube it would’ve been much more difficult to climb inside the mind of a teenager during the Second World War.

Rural Scotland

For my second novel, Silma Hill, things weren’t so straightforward. Set in a rural Scottish village in the 18th century, there was little music I could draw on directly. I write with music playing but modern romantic re-imaginings of period ballads didn’t give me the tone I needed, as much as I enjoy songs like The Corries Come O’er The Stream Charlie. For a Gothic tale of witchcraft, torture and death, I needed something stronger. I found it in Mogwai’s soundtrack to the French zombie TV drama Les Revenants. Haunting, brooding, the threat of violence never far away, yet beautiful, moving and melancholy, the instrumental tracks rising and falling like waves of emotion gave me an atmosphere in which I could build my world. Songs like Wizard Motor get inside your head, unsettle you and never leave. When you’re writing horror, that is the ultimate goal.

The Undercover Soundtrack Iain Maloney 2Piper Alpha

My third novel, The Waves Burn Bright (to be published May 2016), is the story of a family torn apart by the Piper Alpha disaster. It is set between 1980 and 2013 so finding suitable music was easy. During my research phase early R.E.M. tracks like Finest Worksong brought me back to the late ’80s with style, jangly guitars and a political sensibility underpinning everything. The Smiths, The Pixies, The Sugarcubes, I gorged myself on the cream of ’80s alternative until a thought stopped me like a scratched 12-inch. I was recreating my ’80s, not my character’s. I switched off the music, sat back and had a chat with Carrie, my main character. It turned out she wasn’t much into music. Background radio, that was fine, but she didn’t buy music. One of those people who goes ‘I like that song, the one from that advert that goes “dum dum dum dee dah”.’ Strangely this absence of music in her life – so very, very different from me – was the moment when she became whole, three dimensional, real. After that awakening the novel rolled out of me. Sometimes silence is profounder than any song.

FB_FTS_Cover_Visual_4Of course I couldn’t let it go at that. She may not like music but that wasn’t going to stop me getting some in there. Her father, Marcus, wallowing in the misery of his recent divorce, returns to the music of his youth – Pink Floyd, Yes, and The Who.

Music, for me, is inseparable from the act of writing. It sets the mood of the piece, shapes the characters, sometimes even dictates the action. David Mitchell once swore himself off writing about music, calling it ‘An excuse for me to write about writing without writing about writing’. Music isn’t a metaphor for me, it’s as vital as air. I couldn’t live without it, and I certainly couldn’t write without it.

Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and is currently based in Japan. His novels First Time Solo and Silma Hill are out now on Freight Books. His third novel, The Waves Burn Bright, will be published in May 2016. A poetry collection will follow later in the year. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize and in 2014 he was shortlisted for the Guardian Not The Booker prize. He is also a freelance journalist and reviewer, sits on the editorial board of Eastlit Magazine and is Reviews Editor of Shoreline of Infinity. His website is here and he tweets as @iainmaloney

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Davina Blake

for logo‘Music is the undertow to what I am writing’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold  a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by wartime romance author Davina Blake (who also writes as Deborah Swift @swiftstory)

Soundtrack by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lena Horne, Kate Bush, George Gershwin, Larry Adler, Alison Moyet, Purcell, Led Zeppelin, Rachmaninoff, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler

Music has always been the mirror of my moods, how I am feeling is externalized by the music I play, so it is fortunate that I have eclectic tastes. When writing I prefer silence, but as I type I am aware of the echo of the music from moments before; it still hums inside me, the undertow to what I am writing.

Deborah-Swift (1)

The edge of longing

I need to be able to access certain states in order to write well, and music helps me do this. What I was trying to capture in Past Encounters was a kind of longing – a longing that borders on nostalgia, but is not that sentimental. It is at the edge of things. We have no English word for it, but the German word is sehnsucht. For this novel I was looking for transparency and intimacy, to keep the words simple so you could almost see through them.

I remembered Mary Chapin Carpenter’s John Doe #24 , which does just this, with its simple tune and narrative arc, telling the story of a blind, deaf and dumb man stripped of identity, the ultimate loss, yet still the character haunts us. In Past Encounters Peter becomes a prisoner of war, just a number, so I went back to the track and listened again. In the song, sensory detail becomes enormously important, his toes feeling the streetcar rails underfoot, the scent of jasmine.

Conjuring the past

In the novel both protagonists, Rhoda and her fiancé Peter, mourn the loss of their familiar life to the outbreak of war. I found myself listening to old recordings to conjure the atmosphere of the past. My mother used to love Lena Horne’s The Man I Love (1941), and the crackling of the LP, the sudden silence when it ends, with just the needle bumping round on the record, seemed to say almost as much as the actual music. When I am working I use Youtube to plug myself into the mood of what I am writing, searching out tracks of the era I am working on. Kate Bush’s recording of the same song with Larry Adler on harmonica really spoke to me. The wailing quality of the harmonica seemed to embody Rhoda’s search for the man she loves, which is both Peter, who is missing, and the longing which is somehow not attached to any one man in particular. It is the same longing that makes me want to write, the stretching out towards a feeling I can’t name.

The story is set in WWII, but it is not about heroes. Rhoda’s fiancé Peter spends the whole war in a prisoner of war camp. But what drives the book is his intense friendships with the other men, and the fact that and he and Rhoda survive on memories of each other. Death stalks the captive prisoners and the music I listened to a lot during this phase of writing consisted of elegies to the dead. Alison Moyet’s great natural voice singing Dido’s Lament by Purcell strips away the artifice of opera to make us think nakedly about memory and how we will be remembered.

Gallows humour

Writing historical fiction is an awkward relationship between honouring and dishonouring our relationship with the past. Gallows humour is an essential part of survival, both for Peter in the book, and for me as a writer, and I loved the recycling of an old English folk tune in Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin, especially the ultimate twist, when the hangman (death itself) is hanged on the gallows pole.

I like listening to the layers in music, and Gallows Pole is one piece that repays that sort of listening. That sudden mandolin! I like to pick out individual layers and will often listen over and over to the same piece, following different musical parts. I do this in the novel too; write following different narrative threads. In Past Encounters it is just two, Rhoda and Peter, in my other novels it has been more. When I edit, I do this too, follow different lines of the narrative.

02_Past-Encounters-682x1024Strangely, although Rhoda’s story is set during the filming of Brief Encounter, I found the Rachmaninoff score too strident and brash for the subtle feeling I needed. The Rachmaninoff score is heavy on the piano. As Nick Cave says, ‘The guitar is something you kind of embrace, and the piano is something you kind of – when you play it, you sort of push it away. It feels very different.’

So the intimacy and loss I was after is there in the guitar of Blind Willie McTell by Bob Dylan. It is a track that was never completed from his album Infidels, and is therefore more poignant because it was almost lost. It is raw and unproduced – you can almost hear a coat button scratching on the top of the guitar as he sings of the loss of not just one blues singer, but of the loss of a whole era of blues singers. Of course really it is Mark Knopfler on guitar, not Dylan, but the impression of one man and a guitar remains. Music is like writing, a world of mirrors and illusion.

Davina Blake also writes seventeenth century novels as Deborah Swift. She lives in the North of England in a small village close to the mountains and the sea, a fact which encourages her to go out and get the fresh air that every writer needs. Past Encounters is her fifth novel, but the first published as an independent author. Tweet her as @swiftstory. Find her on Facebook.

GIVEAWAY Davina is excited to be giving away three ebook copies of Past Encounters to commenters here. Extra entries if you share the post on Twitter, G+, Linked In, Tumblr, Facebook, Ello or anywhere else you frequent. Breathe on a bus window and write it inside a love-heart. Just remember to say in your comment here that you’ve done it!

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Suzie Grogan

for logo‘A sense of collective trauma across a century’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold  a moment still to explore its depths. This week’s post is by Suzie Grogan @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb

Soundtrack by Nick Drake, Kenneth Branagh and the Moody Blues

An ‘Undercover Soundtrack’ reflecting the writing I have been doing over the past two years, and which I will continue to work on for the foreseeable future, offers a particular challenge. Not specifically character driven, yet evoking a sense of collective trauma across a century, my most recent book Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for author picBritain’s mental health is a call to arms for those responsible for supporting service personnel and their families on into the 21st century. It is a tough subject, taking a writer to scenes of horror and despair worthy of the darkest psychological thriller; yet the writing must inspire hope and promote understanding and compassion. Some 80,000 men were diagnosed with shell shock during the Great War, but that is a gross under-estimate. It does not include those that broke down post-war, or who suffered in silence until the ends of their lives. It does not include those on the Home Front – families torn apart by grief, or affected by the trauma of air raids. The soundtrack to Shell Shocked Britain is a varied one indeed.

Gentle despair

The first track I have to mention is Day is Done, by Nick Drake. Drake was a precociously talented young man who found the world a difficult place to live in, despite the opportunities that it offered to express himself through his love of music. My poor husband, regularly working with me at home, was shushed and ignored as I tapped away to the complex and unorthodox guitar and the melancholy lyrics.

Can despair ever be gentle? As I wrote Shell Shocked I came to realise that ultimately it was the return to what passed for normality, the requirement to fit in to a world forever changed, that broke many men post war. One young man wrote, in a note found in his pocket following his suicide

The day is one of intense loveliness, but the purpose for which I came down must be accomplished.

He had served with great courage at the Front, but life had become meaningless for him. Men lost their way, could no longer communicate with loved ones and found solace in self-medication.

Occasionally I would reach a point in the manuscript where I felt drained of any emotion and it was then I would turn to Nick Drake. He ended his life with an overdose of antidepressants, planned or accidental. The track recharged my commitment to expose the horrors and give that despair a voice.

Wilfred Owen

Is it cheating to include a recording of poetry? Kenneth Branagh reading The Parable of the Old Man and the Young by Wilfred Owen (a poet whose death occurred so close to the end of the First World War that his parents received the telegram on the day the Armistice was signed) was a track that I turned to when I really wanted to evoke that real sense of horror at what the men in the trenches suffered, without any graphic depiction of the physical privations. Read so simply, the deep meaning can elude you. But if ever I needed reminding that despite all the warnings, in the face of so much evidence, a man’s emotional and physical well-being was denied throughout the period of the Great War and then for years afterwards, this is the track I turned to. Those final lines are chilling:

Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Researching Shell Shocked Britain I was not surprised to read that those in government were reluctant to step back from the horrors, but I was stunned at the level of ignorance that continued well after the war, and which left families to cope with damaged men, or consigned them to lunatic asylums.

The question

Finally, no other song threads its way through the pages of my book like Question, written by Justin Hayward and sung by the Moody Blues. Question – how would we respond to a Spanish influenza outbreak that killed 200,000 people in a year? Question – how could anyone really believe that a spiritualist medium could talk to sons, brothers, lovers lost in shellthe mud and blood of the trenches to the point where some 5000 séance circles were established and thousands would crowd halls large and small to hear a medium communicate with the dead? Question – why did doctors continue to believe men with symptoms of shell shock were malingerers or cowards well beyond the end of the war, leaving thousands of men lost in local lunatic asylums? Question – why do we hear so little about the rise of the eugenics movement post First World War, little realising that many historical figures advocated the eradication of the mentally ill from the ‘breeding’ stock of Britain. And Question – why, 100 years on are young men and women still suffering levels of PTSD wholly unacceptable in a modern military?

We may not have the answers, but we, like the Moody Blues, must keep asking the questions.

Suzie Grogan is a London-born writer, researcher and editor, published in national publications on the subjects of health (focusing on mental health), women’s issues and social history. She has had two books published and is currently working on two further commissions for Pen and Sword Books for publication in 2016 and 2017. In her spare time she dabbles in fiction and has her own imprint, Mickleden Press. Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage… Find Suzie on her website, her blog, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, where she is both @keatsbabe and @shellshockedgb. Shell-Shocked Britain is available on Amazon or from the publisher.

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‘A sense of collective trauma across a century’ – Suzie Grogan

for logoMy guest this week is a writer of non-fiction. Her book is an exploration of the legacy of the World Wars on mental health – the soldiers who developed shell shock, broke down afterwards or endured their nightmares in silence. And those on the home front too, the families torn apart by grief or traumatised by air raids. Her soundtrack is honest and searching, seeking a way to do justice to a tough subject. There is the gentle despair of Nick Drake, the Question of the Moody Blues, and a reading of Wilfred Owen by Kenneth Branagh. The author is Suzie Grogan and she’ll be here on Wednesday with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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The Undercover Soundtrack – Leslie Wilson

‘The last days of Nazi Germany did not play out to Wagner, but sentimental hits about love and hope’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by multi-award-winning historical novelist Leslie Wilson

Soundtrack by Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong, Barnabas Von Geczy & His Orchestra et al, Lilian Harvey and Willi Fritsch

The dying days of Nazi Germany played out, not to the music of Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, but mainly to sentimental hits about love and hope, especially – as I first heard from my German mother -one called Es geht Alles Vorüber (Everything passes).  She said she couldn’t get it out of her head even in the thick of an air-raid.

Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, disliked these songs, finding them too ‘soft’ for an era which he had dedicated to Total War – but he knew better than to ban them; they boosted morale.

A theme for every novel

I don’t often write to music, but I listen to it when I drive and cook and get up in the morning, and every novel has its theme tunes. For Last Train from Kummersdorf, my first novel about Nazi Germany, with a jazz-obsessed heroine, I listened to Django Reinhardt and Louis Armstrong; for Saving Rafael, which tells the story of a German girl who hides her Jewish boyfriend from the Nazi authorities, I found a CD called Berlin by Night; a compilation of German-language hits from the ’30s.

It’s expensive to get permissions from song copyright-holders, so when I want lyrics I usually write my own, after listening to a lot of contemporary songs.  On this CD I found a song that inspired my lyric: schmaltzy and yet it expressed just what the characters are feeling.

Jenny, my heroine, has met Rafael at the Café Kranzler, the poshest café in Berlin – a place he’s forbidden by law to enter, but his blond hair and blue eyes (think of Paul Newman) help him to blag his way through Berlin and meet Jenny – also forbidden, by this time. He even manages to pay the bill – he’s found a lost wallet with a Nazi Party high-up’s ID card in it, so he has no scruples about removing the money.

Jenny, who’s fifteen, has put on her new best dress; the grown-up one she’s managed to persuade her reluctant mother to make her. Only Rafael doesn’t seem to want to look at her, though she’s dressed up specially for him. She doesn’t understand that he’s just shy; she’s miserable, convinced everything’s going wrong – till the singer launches into this song.

I’m dancing in your arms

Forgetting grief and harm

When I look deep into your eyes

My heart flies off to paradise –

Rafael reaches out, takes her hand, and begins stroking her fingers. Later, when Jenny’s convinced he’s stopped loving her, she hears the song, and suffers – and later still it plays another really important part in the story.

Frankly, it makes me giggle

The original song was called Ich Tanze mit Dir in den Himmel Hinein, (I’m dancing to heaven with you) ­– and frankly, it makes me giggle, with its long-drawn-out phrases and languishing violin flourishes – but it was a major hit in its time; the vocalists are Lilian Harvey – an actress born in London’s Muswell Hill, and Willi Fritsch – and it occurs in a film made by the UFA studios and released in 1937.

Some of the words are similar to the lyric of Ich Tanze mit Dir – like the heart flying off to paradise – but my second line, with ‘grief and harm’ derives from my grandmother’s favourite German Christmas carol. However, the German translators seem to have recognised the inspiration, and it’s the lyrics to Ich Tanze mit Dir that appear in the German version. (Nicht Ohne Dich, Boje Verlag)

A lyric in a novel is quite different, of course, from the lyric to a song. In the latter, the music’s most important, but in a novel – and I think this is true even if one’s using a song whose music is well-known – the words have to do all the work. Using clichéd and schlocky language to underline feeling may sound odd, when otherwise one works so hard to to find fresh ways to put those feelings – but Graham Greene did it, and I’m not ashamed to follow in his footsteps.

Leslie Wilson is the author of four critically acclaimed historical novels, two for adults, Malefice and The Mountain of Immoderate Desires (which won the Southern Arts Prize) and two for young adults, Last Train from Kummersdorf (shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize) and Saving Rafael (nominated for the Carnegie Medal, Highly Commended for the Southern Schools Book Award, shortlisted for the Lancashire Book of the Year Award and longlisted for the Wirral Paperback of the Year Award). She has lived in England, Germany, and Hong Kong. She lives in Berkshire with a husband and a dog, and has two daughters and three grandsons. Find her at her website

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