Tales my mother told me…
My mother was always a good storyteller. I grew up listening to her tales of all the great historical events she and her parents and brothers and sisters had lived through. She was born in 1925, and she’d certainly seen some interesting times - not least the great depression of the 1930s and the second world war. So I heard about poverty, and the Blitz, and what it had been like to be a teenage girl in a London full of GIs.
Over the years the stories grew more and more polished with the telling, and when I look back I realise now she never let the actual facts stand in the way of drama. Several of her best stories were second-hand too, narratives she’d inherited from her father. My grandfather had died before I was born so I had never met him, but he came to life again in those stories - they certainly caught my young imagination.
Their background was simple, but tragic. According to my mum, her father was orphaned when he was quite young and sent off to Australia with his younger brother. But they were separated on arrival, my grandfather staying in Australia while his brother was sent on to New Zealand. My grandfather grew up in Australia, but when war broke out in 1914 he joined the Australian army and fought at Gallipoli, and probably in France too. He must have spent some time back in Blighty, for that’s where he met and married my grandmother, deciding not to return to Australia.
Most of my mum’s stories about him focused on Gallipoli, and the fact that he had nightmares about the campaign for years afterwards. I’m pretty sure now that those tales, and her stories of what happened in the second world war stimulated my interest in history - it was always one of my favourite subjects in school. But one thing she told me stuck in my mind, and made me think about the ways in which history affects individual people and families. For she told me that my grandfather’s brother - my great-uncle - joined the New Zealand army in 1914, and the brothers met for the first time in twelve years in the trenches of the Gallipoli peninsula. I have a feeling that she might have made that bit up then convinced herself it was true, but I didn't really care. It was something that felt as if it should be true anyway.
Fast forward more than forty years, and the boy who listened to those stories is now a writer of children’s books who has been slowly drawn into writing historical fiction. I’d often thought about that story, and with the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign looming (in April 2015), I knew it was the right time. Over the years I’d read a lot about the first world war, and knew that the Gallipoli campaign had been a terrible experience for all the men involved - the Aussies and Kiwis of the ANZAC brigades, the British and French soldiers, the Turkish soldiers too. I’d also found out that hundreds of thousands of orphans and children in care had been packed off to Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the Empire - and that they’d been lied to and abused as well. So I knew I really did have a great human story to tell.
I was also very lucky that Barrington Stoke decided to publish Anzac Boys
, as it came to be called. I’ve written a lot of books for Barrington Stoke, and they’re always great to work with - but they excelled themselves with Anzac Boys
. My editor Emma Baker gave me some terrific advice on how to tell the story, and the finished product looks wonderful, with marvellous illustrations by Ollie Cuthbertson. It really was a very moving moment when I first saw a finished copy of the book - for a brief moment I felt like that boy listening to his mother’s stories again. The only sad thing is that my mum won’t be able to appreciate it - she’s 89, but has dementia.
Anzac Boys is certainly in good company on the Barrtington Stoke list - there have been a lot of first world war books to commemorate the centenary, but Barrington Stoke’s other titles on the subject certainly stand out for me. I love Linda Newbery’s Vera-Brittain-influenced tale of a young volunteer nurse and the officer she loves, Tilly’s Promise
. Tom Palmer’s gripping Over the Line
manages to combine football and the war in a tale based on a true story. And Catherine MacPhail’s Stars Shall Be Bright
builds a haunting fairy tale out of another true story, a train crash in the first world war in which the bodies of three unidentified children were found.
One phrase that keeps coming back to me as I read these stories about the first world war is something the great war poet Wilfred Owen said about his own work - ‘The poetry is in the pity’. My mother gave me a great gift - a combination of truth and storytelling that enabled me to see how true those words of Owen’s are. I hope I’ve managed to convey at least some of that in Anzac Boys
- and that if they could have read the book, she and her dad would have liked what I’ve done.
Tony Bradman, 20.2.2015