Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Part two of the inside story of writing Blood and Bandages - fighting for life in a RAMC Field Ambulance 1940-1946.

I fudged it.
     I couldn't give up scriptwriting. I loved it too much but neither could I ignore my new found obligation. Pragmatism was required, so in my naviety I just added, 'write Bill's book,' to my to-do list.  I determined to give it 100% effort to match that given by those of whom I was writing, notwithstanding my intention to give the same to my scripts. Such impossible goals deserved impossible time frames and I gave myself two years to write a book and an original screenplay. I rolled up my sleeves and instructed my sub-conscious to start on the script while the rest of me worked on the book.
     I had imagined the book in terms of a stone being dropped into a millpond. Bill's story was the stone and each ripple represented context, the closer to the impact, the greater the detail. The first and closest was that of the 214th field ambulance, the next, his sister field ambulance, the next, the Royal Army Medical Corps, then the 56th (London) Division, the Eighth and Fifth Armies and so on with the history of the Second World War being the furthest from the epicentre.
    I wanted to use as much first hand material as possible, so I returned to the National Archives to copy the war diaries of the 167th field ambulance, reports from the 56th (London) Division and any other material which could shed light on Bill's story, however loosely connected. I read out of print books dedicated to the Italian Campaign like, 'The Gothic Line' by Douglas Orgill (1967), 'The Campaign in Italy' by Eric Linklater (1951) and more contemporary ones like, Norman Lewis' 'Naples '44', Matthew Parker's 'Monte Cassino' and Lloyd Clark's 'Anzio.' I constantly renewed Redmond McLaughlin's 'The Royal Army Medical Corps,' and tracked down the wonderful 'RAMC' by Anthony Cotterell (1943/4).  I also began to tackle the big beasts of military history like Max Hastings and the sublime Antony Beevor. I had a voracious appetite for knowledge, most evident in my weekly interviews with Bill.
     Bill was a perfect interviewee. He was bright, thoughtful, honest and generous. He forgave the technical problems with cameras or tape-recorders and my inexperience. Each time I asked him to recount a particuarly horrific event, he took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and answered. The same questions were repeated, not because I was being voyeuristic, but because I was thoughtless. Then I remembered that when I looked out onto the garden I saw the washing line, when Bill looked out, he saw the war.
     One of the events which caused him great distress was the capture of his greatest friend, Frank Allen at Anzio. He described in detail how the Black Cats had landed with the invasion force at Anzio on 22nd January 1944; how they had wasted time building up the bridgehead while the Germans brought in reinforcements and surrounded them; how attempts to breakout had ended in slaughter and how Frank had been captured during a disasterous night mission. It was an oft repeated story but when I checked it against the records I discovered that the Black Cats did not arrive in Anzio until 17th February and Frank had been taken prisoner the previous November. I pieced together the correct version but I couldn't just hand it to Bill to read. I had to tell him face to face that his memory was false. How do you tell a man of 97 years that for the last 50 years or so he's been mistaken? That his subconscious had merged two of his most awful memories into one terrrible event. It took him a while for it to sink in.
      Alongside the research, I was drafting and re-drafting the book. It hit 20 drafts, then 25 and finally 30 before I had set every event in context. It had been a hard graft but I felt confident enough to send it out to two of my most trusted writing buddies for their feedback.  Their response was unanimous; while the book had gained the history, it had lost its heart.
   I was shattered.  As I slowly digested their comments, I realised that I had inadvertently created a second rate history from a first rate story.
     It felt like almost four years of painstaking research, effort and time had been wasted. I was exhausted and wanted to slink into a corner, lick my wounds and chide myself for ever having thought that I could do it.
     I'll tell you what happened next on 10th February in part three of the inside story of Blood and Bandages - fighting for life in a RAMC Field Ambulance 1940 -1946.
     Thanks for dropping by. It's good to be back.

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