Interview with Author J.W. Blackmore

I’d like to welcome Author Jan Blackmore to Layered Pages. Hello, Jan! Thank you for chatting today. Please tell me a little about yourself.

I was born in Twickenham, England and educated at Hampton Grammar School. An adventurous teenager, I joined the merchant navy and also served in the Royal Artillery. Aged 20, I went to college and studied quantity surveying. I later became an independent claims consultant, working overseas in the petro-chemical industry. I started writing some 20 years ago and now write full-time. I have published three novels and expect to complete editing my fourth for publication this winter. I write most days and I also enjoy playing bridge and reading (a lot); I closely monitor the antics of our political masters and I’m a film buff. I live in West Somerset, England with my wife, a couple of goats and a few chickens. Highlights of my present life include the visits from our daughter – the youngest of four children – when her busy university schedule permits.

Visit my Website.

Please tell me a little about your book, Rupert’s Shadow.

Rupert’s Shadow is the story of a family, specifically two brothers, which shows how the lives of individuals are shaped by external influences beyond their control. Faced with many challenges, the family survives, led by Hector, the elder sibling but as Rupert, the youngest, reaches maturity, he begins to make decisions for himself. Influenced by the Christian teaching of his mother, Rupert makes the most of his natural gifts but the absence of the father he never knew weighs heavily on his psyche – like a shadow he can never throw off.

Rupert's shadow

What genre does it fall under?

It is a family saga.

Could you please share an excerpt?

Basic training was done and Hector was posted to a field unit. His journey took him close to home and he stopped off to see his mother.

  Hector walked briskly uphill, smiling at the neighbours he passed on their way down. He knew he looked smart in his uniform and he was proud to be serving his country.

He playfully banged the tin bath that was hanging on the wall before he entered the house and the creaking back door doubly surprised mother who was home alone. Good – he wanted her full attention.

He began by talking about his training and the boys he had met. They laughed when he imitated their accents.

‘What will you do after the war, Hector? It was always my wish that you would go to university, perhaps devote your life to those less fortunate.’

‘Now that’s just not realistic is it, mother? I don’t have qualifications or money . . . but I have thought about it. I’ll carry on with the carpentry while I look around; long term I intend to work for myself.’

‘Well, it’s good you’re thinking about it. They say the war will end soon. I pray you’ll not see any fighting.’

‘Don’t worry, mother,’ he chuckled. ‘I’ll be careful.’

His fingers tapped softly on his chair; he was waiting for his moment.

‘Mother, I want to know what happened to my father. For some reason it suddenly seems important.’

‘I know, dear,’ she said and paused. She understood his need to know. ‘You should hear the full story.’

Hector settled back in his chair.

‘Well now, your grandfather came from Devon. The industrial revolution created opportunities and with his first born, Uncle William, he opened a bespoke tailors shop in Handsworth. They worked hard and the business flourished. When I met your father, they had three shops.’ She paused and gazed through the window, remembering happier times. A smile crossed her face. ‘He was so handsome and I loved him dearly. My parents knew his family and were keen to see me married. I was twenty-two and your grandfather was not well off.’

Show me a churchman who is, thought Hector.

‘There were stories; that he liked women and gambled but he was always charming to me. Your uncle says he married under threat of severance from the family but I never believed that. Anyway, we did marry, in Coventry Cathedral. The bishop himself married us.’

She paused and Hector sensed her sweeping back the years. He leaned forward and taking her hand he gave her an encouraging smile. Her eyes fluttered and she fumbled in her apron pocket for her hand-embroidered handkerchief; she dabbed at her moist eyes.

‘But why did he desert us,’ he asked softly? ‘It was so drastic, so final.’

‘He changed when we lost Geoffrey – the pneumonia took him at three months. After that he began to come home late, sometimes after midnight. He said he was working and I believed him. When Rupert was born he was drinking a lot so I suspected something was wrong. One day, he just failed to come home. I was shocked when the police said there were gambling debts. Your uncle said he dared not turn to his father. The investigating officer – he was a member of grandfather’s lodge – said your father had been threatened but there was no evidence of foul play. They concluded that he left of his own accord.’

‘Why didn’t grandpa help you?’

‘He did help but he was a widower, quite old and his health was failing. He felt badly let down and couldn’t come to terms with it. We were a painful reminder, especially Rupert, with his red hair.’

‘Yes,’ Hector nodded. ‘He does remind me of father.’

‘Of course, he had other grandchildren and I think it was less painful to spend more of his time with them. Business was slow and the house we lived in was sold. I think he was influenced by the rest of his family. The biggest hurt was taking you out of school.’

Her cheeks were wet now and she struggled to hold back her tears. Hector lifted the hand he had never released and kissed it.

‘It’s alright, mother. Let it all out, we’re almost done.’

She threw herself into his arms and cried out, expelling the years of pent-up pain. He held her tightly until her weeping was done and her shaking body stilled. She moved back but took his hand again.

‘You said almost, Hector?’

‘Yes, there is one more thing. Do you know where he is now?’

‘He joined his sisters in Winnipeg. Your Aunt Rose is a successful concert pianist. Your grandfather does get letters but they rarely mention your father. I don’t expect to see him again.’

So that was it. She had filled the gaps and now he could draw a line under it.

Please tell me a little about Hector and one of his challenges in life.

Brought up in a middle-class Christian home, privately educated, pony riding and with many other advantages over the average child, Hector’s character is shaped by the time he is 14 – when his father deserts the family. His most immediate challenge is to comfort his mother while they move house and downgrade their living standards; then he has to find work. By default, he has become the family breadwinner.

Please tell me about Hector’s experience as an artilleryman on the Western Front.

Hector was just 17 when he volunteered for service with the Royal Artillery. Barely out of training his unit was posted to France, part of the massive build-up of troops preparing for an assault on the German lines (the second battle of Arras – April/May 1917). Just one day after landing in Rouen, they had travelled through Amiens to a small village that overlooked a vast open plain; less than twenty buildings were left standing. This was Hector’s first sight of the real war; nothing had escaped the shelling from the East. The patched-up buildings housed a command post and behind the village were scores of horses and vehicles, all waiting for the call forward. Beyond the rise, the land fell gently away; the cold, wet

ground was like a sheet of dirty ice, ablaze as sunlight broke through scattered clouds and bounced back at them. Farmland before the hostilities began, there were only trenches and craters and miles of rolled out razor-wire to be seen. They were ordered to get ammunition to the batteries and two horse led wagons moved forward. They were halfway to the guns when the Fokker Triplanes came out of the sun. Flying low over the howitzer positions they swooped down, firing as they flew past. The horses shrieked in terror and bolted forward; the second wagon took a direct hit and the explosion shook the ground, its blast dismembering the horse. A flying shin bone cracked open Little Tony’s skull as he chased the first wagon. The men had thrown themselves into the mud and they watched the Fokkers sweep over the rise, bank and attack the village. There were more explosions before they peeled off, their ammunition spent, job done. Narrow columns of smoke bore witness. The air attack shocked them all; the news of Little Tony stunned them. They were silent, their faces sullen. That evening Hector thought about their vulnerability and Little Tony; it could have been anyone. Dead before his twenty-first, he was not yet a man and such a decent bloke, too. Hector pictured the parents and the agony they would suffer. His first taste of the real war had ended in disaster. His grudging admiration for the Germans turned to hatred. He was a gentle man but now he was sure he would kill as many as he could.

Tell me about Rupert’s strengths and weaknesses.

Rupert was a man of action. He had grown in the bosom of his family and had been taught the importance of duty, honour and loyalty, to love and respect his mother and God, these same characteristics that had been bred into his siblings, in particular, Hector, his role model. He was thought to be a normal boy but at school he was earning a reputation as a bully. A kindly teacher recognised a problem and introduced Rupert to the Erdington Sporting Club, where he was taught to box. He demonstrated a special talent and his boxing prowess provided a platform to a good income. Only Hector detected that Rupert was prepared to take punishment in the ring. He trained and fought well but no one, not even Rupert, knew what motivated him. His success brought him local fame but when he was “spotted” by a group of gangsters who fixed fights, he refused to do what they wanted and a long feud began. He had a weakness for women and was wasteful with his money, although he gave his total income to his mother. He was popular and was prepared to help anyone but his greatest strength was his refusal to be beaten – in or out of the boxing ring. His weakness was his refusal to accept fault in his own character.

What is an example of a poor decision Rupert makes and how does it affect him? Does he learn from it?

Rupert returned from Dunkirk a broken man. He was discharged and faced a lifetime of medical care. He knew that his marriage was breaking down but instead of making an effort to repair it, he started an affair with a nurse. That decision brought an end to his marriage but it did not bring him happiness. Too late, his nurse tutored him through a long period of self-analysis but he never suppressed the idea that his life had turned full cycle – like his father, he had killed his own marriage.

Your story covers quite a broad period. Why did you chose to do so and how did you make it work?

The model for my story was my father’s family. It was fortunate that Hector and Rupert were born a decade apart, which allowed me to bring historical narrative to the story. When you consider that Hector was born early 1900, I think a sixty year period is necessary if the whole story is to be told. I hope it does work, and I guess the answer is that with so much history and so many family members, it sort of comes together naturally.

What are the historical facts included in your story and how does it affect the lives of Hector and Rupert?

Historical facts – the backdrop to so much of the action includes:

– WWI was a mixed blessing. There was plenty of work and young Hector was able to provide for the family. His military service in France was a few months before he was wounded and repatriated, partially deaf. It was a worrying time for Miriam (mother) who spent many sleepless nights thinking about Hector.

– The emerging trades union movement. The post war economy remained buoyant for a few years but there were ominous signs of a slowdown and unemployment. Hector joined the union. He tried to make a contribution but in his role of branch treasurer found that prewar traditions were still strong. He was concerned about the absence of accountability for the funds raised. His concerns were ignored and when he became unemployed, his union membership was cancelled.

– The struggle for survival for working class families. Lloyd George’s promise “of a land fit for heroes” did not materialize and in the early 1920s there was rising unemployment; government benefits were inadequate. Children were dying from malnutrition and large pockets of the population went hungry. Hector walked for miles taking on casual work wherever he found it. He had an idea and began totting – collecting rags and scrap metal. Rex, the second son had joined the Navy and was able to help support the family.

– The Movement (National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement) was formed in April 1921. Its declared intent was to fight for the unemployed. It was funded by the USSR and its leaders were former shop stewards and left wing activists. With nowhere else to go, Hector joined them and they achieved a lot, challenging the government at every opportunity.

– Hunger marches to London. Organized by the Movement, Hector played a major role, leading marchers from Birmingham to London. Hector had an entrepreneurial spirit and decided that he had done all he could for the working man. He concentrated on his totting business and their lives slowly improved.

– WWII. Rupert felt the call to duty and volunteered but he had a terrible war. Immediately before the war, he had won the inter-services cross country championship so he was in terrific shape. He went to France with the British Expeditionary Force and in the spring of 1940, spent several weeks trying to stem the German advance. His unit fought its way back to the coast and he was rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk. His rescue ship suffered a direct hit and sank and he spent several hours adrift in the English Channel. He arrived home, shell-shocked and broken. Things got worse when the hospital that was treating him was bombed and he was buried alive. After being dug out, his mind was clogged with the death and destruction he had witnessed.

Why did you chose Birmingham, England as the beginning location of your story?

I chose Birmingham, England as the beginning location of my story because that is where Hector and Rupert were brought up. I believe it was the only place that the story could have started.

How did you research for your story and what did you discover that you might have not known before?

This is a book in itself. My father died before my children were born and when they asked me about him, there was no permanent record. I decided to make a few notes for them. I quickly discovered that there was more to my father and his family than I had imagined and I set out interviewing his friends, and my uncles and aunts. Practically everything I knew about him was after 1945 and I was amazed at how highly he was regarded by many. I did not know a well man and so I was fascinated to learn about his healthy lifestyle (prewar) and I was so proud to learn of his inter-services success. I stopped writing for a while, I thought I had enough but then a chance meeting with uncle Hector stirred my curiosity. His story was different but equally compelling. I decide then, to write the novel. I felt that their lives had been too run-of-the-mill and in novel form required “spicing up”. The locations and backdrop were already there (see paras 9 and 10 above) and whenever I felt the facts needed “spicing”, I let my imagination run free. It follows that Rupert’s Shadow is a work of fiction, driven by factual events and real characters and I have tried to portray their personalities and motivations without change.

How long did it take to write your story and where in your home do you write?

I started to make notes in 1992. I have been working overseas, which made it difficult to meet up with people and places I wanted to visit (like the Imperial War Museum). There was so much research to do – for example I had never heard of the Movement before and the more I uncovered the more determined I was to look into every nook and cranny. So much of this book was written on–the-run but thanks to modern technology (laptops) I was able to record, store and retrieve at will. I began to collate in 2009. I have a small office in my home – a former ground floor bedroom but with my youngest daughter at university, we have the luxury of space. The sun streams thought the window from dawn to about 3pm and I look into our garden in which my wife somehow manages to display colour all year round. I can close the door and let my imagination take over. I guess I am one of the luckiest people alive.

Where can readers buy your book?

Rupert’s Shadow can be purchased in e-book format (Smashwords and Amazon). Paperback versions are available from most bookstores worldwide. Simply give the ISBN number and title and the bookstore will order from Lightning Source. Also, I am prepared to distribute in the U.K. from Goldcleeve Press, Somerset, England. TA4 1PQ <blackmorejan@hotmail.co.uk>.

  

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