Two troubled people struggle to find their way in a turbulent world.
In July 1940, Gwen Collingwood drops her husband at the railway station, knowing she may never see him again. Two days later her humdrum world is torn apart when the sleepy English seaside town where she lives is subjected to the first of many heavy bombing attacks.
In Ontario, Canada, Jim Armstrong is debating whether to volunteer. His decision becomes clear when he uncovers the secret his fiancée has been keeping from him. A few weeks later he is on a ship bound for England.
Gwen is forced to confront the truth she has concealed about her past and her own feelings. Jim battles with a bewildering and hostile world far removed from the cosy life of his Canadian farm. War brings horror and loss to each of them – can it also bring change and salvation?
Embroidering the Facts
When I wrote my fourth novel, The Green Ribbons, I set it in a real life English country village, Kintbury in Berkshire, but changed the name to Nettlestock. I used an invented name because I wanted to be free to move buildings to different locations and to invent a fictitious lord of the manor without offending potential ancestors. My latest novel, The Chalky Sea, is set during World War 2 in the seaside town where I now live, Eastbourne. This time I kept the town’s name. Here’s why.
Eastbourne played a surprisingly prominent role in the defence of the home front. Over the course of the war it earned a reputation as “the most heavily raided town in the south-east”. In July 1940 this sleepy Victorian seaside town, with its large hotels, splendid pier and unspoilt seafront, experienced the first of more than one hundred aerial bombardments by the German Luftwaffe.
This first attack came on Sunday July 7th at 11am and was focused on a street to the east of the town centre. Whitley Road is an unexceptional residential area. Two civilian men lost their lives in this daylight raid, twenty-two people were injured, nine homes destroyed and a further sixty damaged. A single Dornier Do17 aeroplane with ten high explosive bombs caused the damage. There had been no warning as at the time there was a government instruction that sirens were not to be used when there was only a single plane. This took place a month before the London Blitz and was the first of one hundred and twelve air raids that lasted until March 1944 and resulted in one hundred and ninety-nine deaths in the town, most of them civilians.
With so much devastation in one small tourist town, it seemed to me to be wrong to invent a fictitious town as the setting for my book. Few people are aware of what happened to Eastbourne. I lived here during my secondary school years, and was completely oblivious as to what went on during the war. I have been amazed how many others were ignorant of the facts, including many who have lived here all their lives. So I decided The Chalky Sea would stay true to the facts and any bombings featured in the book would involve the same places, dates and times as happened in real life. My characters are all completely fictitious but any deaths or injuries in the book only happen when actual loss of life occurred. In this way I hope the book can be a testimony to all those forgotten souls who lost their lives here.
The Chalky Sea tells two interwoven stories: that of Gwen, an Eastbourne woman, staying on in the town against advice, after her officer husband has departed to fight overseas, and of Jim, a Canadian soldier from a farm in Ontario. Jim joins up in order to escape a broken heart – hoping that war will end his troubles – one way or another.
Thousands of Canadian soldiers were stationed here in Eastbourne during the war, another little known fact. There was a Canadian presence throughout the town and its surrounds (as well as many other south coast towns), from July 1941 until just before D Day in 1944. As there were many different regiments and units billeted in the town, some for only a matter of weeks, I chose not to assign Jim to a specific regiment – just to the Canadian Second Division. I wanted to be free to move him from Canada to the British garrison town of Aldershot and thence to a particular area of Eastbourne at times of my choosing and this would have proved impossible if I had made him part of an identified unit. In any event there was a lot of fluidity during the war, with Canadians at times serving under British command and vice versa, and soldiers frequently transferring between units and locations.
One of the things that made me want to write The Chalky Sea was my wondering who might have lived in my (circa 1900) house before me. This is how I dreamt up Gwen. I live in the Meads area of Eastbourne, up above the town, close to the Downs and Beachy Head, with a view of the sea. I tried to imagine what it would have been like watching enemy planes skimming over the water, under the radar, ready to heap destruction on the town.
When I first moved here just over a year ago, every day I used to write down a short description of the sea, while waiting for the kettle to boil for my early morning tea. Each day it looked different and I used a few of the descriptions in the book. I knew the Canadians used to park their tanks at the end of my road and drank in both of my two local pubs. The first German fighter plane shot down over the town landed in school grounds at the end of my road. It was inevitable that I would have to write a book set here in Eastbourne.
The Chalky Sea is available as an e-book exclusively on Amazon, and as a paperback via all good book retailers.
Clare Flynn writes historical fiction with a strong sense of time and place and compelling characters. Her books often deal with characters who are displaced – forced out of their comfortable lives and familiar surroundings. She is a graduate of Manchester University where she read English Language and Literature.
Born in Liverpool she is the eldest of five children. After a career in international marketing, working on brands from nappies to tinned tuna and living in Paris, Milan, Brussels and Sydney, she ran her own consulting business for 15 years and now lives in Eastbourne where she writes full-time – and can look out of her window and see the sea.
When not writing and reading, Clare loves to paint with watercolours and grabs any available opportunity to travel – sometimes under the guise of research.