Tuesday, 27 September 2011
Downton Abbey and In the Bleak Midwinter
Lesley Nicol and Sophie McShera, who play the splendid Mrs Patmore and daffy maid, Daisy, are part of a sub-plot in the much-mooted and popular costume drama, Downton Abbey, showing currently on ITV. A young nephew of Mrs Patmore's has been recorded as dead without much other information given to the grieving relatives. This theme is also the mainstay of my own novel, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER, published October 13th and my most challenging work so far. This hard-core theme deals with the repercussions of a young man, shot for cowardice by his own side, rather than dying a hero on the front line. In Mrs Patmore's words, what could be worse than death? Without a doubt, it was cowardice. A white feather was given to individuals who were thought to have reneged on their duty or failed to turn up for certain death at the army recruiting office. Similarly, when the troops found themselves waging battle with the enemy whilst experiencing shell-shock, effects from the mustard gas, and horrific injuries that made them vulnerable victims of warfare, such was the feeling between 1914 - 1918, that many young men were shot or imprisoned by their own ranks. Very often too, they were only boys of fifteen and sixteen, having disguised their ages to answer the call of their country. Downton Abbey has included this as a sub-plot involving Mrs Patmore, the cook, but in my own story, I bring the injustice, fear and desperation of my heroine's brother Frank, into the heart of the novel. His imprisonment for cowardice provokes my heroine, Birdie Connor, into challenging the British judicial system. Not a common thing to do in those days, even for an aristocratic family, as we see in the TV drama. Birdie is an East Ender and working class. At twenty-one she's on the brink of marriage to her sweetheart and a happy future after the war. She risks all this in her fight to prove Frank's innocence. She absolutely refuses to be beaten by her own fears and the pulling together of ranks in Whitehall. My story was drawn from what happened in real life to my grandfather, an infantry man in the First World War, lashed to the gun wheel, flogged mercilessly and accused of desertion. He survived miraculously, but many like him didn't. I dedicated this book to the Buffs, my father-in-law's brave regiment. I hope that Downton Abbey reminds us of how proud we should be of any man attempting to fight for his country - for just "showing up" to put his life on the line, as so many of our troops have done and are still doing in contemporary times and indeed, over the long, and hard-won decades of history.