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Novel set in Clapham post WW2 (finding colour in life)

10th September 2017

The New Mrs Clifton by Elizabeth Buchan, novel set in Clapham, London (and Berlin) post WW2.

I was intrigued to read The New Mrs Clifton because I know both Clapham and Berlin well. I also have German ancestry and have heard many of the terrible stories about the ashes of Berlin after WWII.

Novel set in Clapham

It is beautifully written, with a  layering of melancholia that never really lifts, reflecting the era. The wording, too, is suffused with monochrome tones and detai,l as the people in Clapham try to pick over their lives and get back on their feet:

The colours just aren’t as vivid as they were fore the war”.

It’s 1945 and Gus has been on secret operations in Berlin, and after the war returns to his sisters Julia and Tilly, and to face Nella the woman he was due to marry before he left England. But now he has a German wife in tow, Krista, and together they arrive, to shocked reactions all round.

An ordinary red dahlia, growing after the war, signifies to Krista “normality

This is a story of loss and survival, and what people do to get by. Gus, now living in Clapham with his family members, is still the master of secrecy.  His wife Krista is plagued by dreadful memories of the war, only alluded to initially.Their marriage is, well, odd – it seems more of an arrangement…

Teddy, Nella’s brother is hell bent on revenge, wishing to punish Gus for rejecting his sister. And his shrewd and shady dealings start to ensnare others into his unpleasant world.

The setting is bleak, the houses around Clapham Common are scored with cracks from German bombing – they look like rows of teeth, with gaps, as portrayed on the cover of the book (pictured). Berlin, where both Gus and Krista spent the war is an utterly devastated city, where women – die Trümmerfrauen – now search the ruins for any means to survive. Krista, as a German living in London so soon after terrible events, meets all kinds of hostility, but she has a strength and perspicacity that helps her manage the onslaught of demeaning and aggressive encounters.

As the novel opens, it is 1974 and new owners in the terrace discover a body, so we may guess that someone somewhere along the line dies….

This book is in part an exploration of the luxury of having a good moral compass. When life has been destroyed, people have to resort to scheming and subterfuge to cleave their way through daily routine. No food, no luxury and a hand to mouth existence inevitably can lead to moral turpitude. How do you get back to normality and lead a decent life after such a deeply devastating period in world history?

The author pens a fluid and thoughtful contemplation of human resolve and resourcefulness, bringing the aftermath of war to vivid life. Recommended.

Tina for the TripFiction Team.

And over to Elizabeth who talks us through how she set her story in post war Clapham and offers a couple of tips for aspiring writers!

#TalkingLocationWith…. Elizabeth Buchan and her latest novel, The New Mrs Clifton

Clapham Common has been the setting for many books and I have the great fortune to live there. There is something about its green open space that attracts the dissenter and its fine pedigree of social reform dwellers include William Wilberforce, his anti-slavery supporters and those who fought to ban child labour.

Over the years, I have walked around the Common countless times and explored the streets leading off it. I know every leaf on every tree and I love the tiny shifts in vegetation as the seasons change.

Holy Trinity Church Clapham

The Common is dominated by the church where Wilberforce worshipped and the recently restored bandstand is a huge favourite with small children. The paths which criss-cross the Common run close to the secret bunkers that were dug during the war, alongside the areas where trenches were dug and a concrete footing for the gun emplacement was put in place. In Clapham South, there was also ventilation shafts which made it possible for Clapham-ites to take shelter during the Blitz.

Fronting onto the Common on the North side is a row of Georgian buildings and on the Southside with slight later ones. Radiating off from North and South side are terraces filled with late Victorian and Edwardian houses.

It is impossible not to notice the gaps, usually filled in with modern housing, in some of these terraces. These were made by bombs during the Second World War. Very often a German pilot had been on a bombing raid over central London and let loose his final bombs onto Clapham as he turned the aircraft round and headed home. Every time I look at one of these filled-in gaps, I think of a missing tooth.

Which was how one or two observers described post-war Berlin in their memoirs. Here the buildings of the inner city had been so pulverized and burnt that they sent strange, jagged shadows across what remained of the roads. People lived feral like animals: they scavenged, they ate what they could lay their hands on and, in immediate months after the war was over, many of the women in Berlin were brutally raped by the victors.

Clapham Common Bandstand

I went to Berlin in 1979 and felt some of the atmospheric back eddy from that time. There were still bullet holes in buildings, an empty desolate space where a Jewish quarter had been, and since Berlin was still divided, a distinctly uneasy and desolate atmosphere. I didn’t go to the Wannsee Lake where Gus and Krista are attacked by a starving Berliner but I did pour over photos taken before the war which showed happy, sunburnt Berliners enjoying themselves.

I drew on my personal memory of Berlin – so different now – to think my way into the mindset of a young woman who is determined to survive. Her German identity is important, of course. But, in strange way, when faced such a cataclysm as the end of the Second World War, the individual doesn’t think about who they are too much. Transported to London, she knows she is seen as the enemy but also knows that the British are struggling with the same imperative as she is: to become normal and live a decent life.

One of my great coups when writing The New Mrs Clifton was to obtain a second-hand copy of the London County Council’s Bomb Damage Maps, 1939-45. Containing 110 maps, it is a meticulously hand-coloured record of destruction which records when a bomb fell, on which building and what level of damage was inflicted. (Gold dust for the novelist.)

Bomb Map of Clapham Common Southside

I am so grateful to the patient people who had put them together, for I was able to plot the degree of destruction that the Cliftons would be living with in their terrace house. It also showed me that the events that provide the finale to the novel would have been possible because no one would have been living in the neighbouring houses who could have been possible witnesses and spoiled the mystery.

It is those small details from the location which so often open the way for the story to progress. Krista is touched by the spectacle of red dahlia growing in a garden and by the sight of people making their way back across the Common from Sunday church. Perhaps we can be normal again, she thinks.

Both post-war Berlin and London offered a treasure trove – and I enjoyed every minute of plunging into the everyday struggles and mindsets of Gus and Krista and the two sisters, Julia and Tilly, as they set about remaking their lives.
3 top writing tips / your 3 favourite pieces of writing advice you’ve ever heard

1) Do it

2) Do it

3) Do it

  •  Talk your idea over with someone you trust
  • Just as you develop muscles going to the gym, so you develop writing muscles by writing on a regular basis and your writing becomes leaner, fitter and better.
  •  Writing is not easy and it is no use pretending that it is. On the other hand, to have your own story at your fingertips is beyond price.

Thank you so much to Elizabeth for sharing her locational research and writing tips. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook and via her website and of course you can buy her book through TripFiction

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