The Spanish Civil War has been the inspiration for many novelists, myself included. In this post, I interview John Simmons, who has recently published a novel with a Civil War background. Spanish Crossings (Urbane Publications, 2017) is set mostly in 1930s and 40s London but his characters, English Lorna and Spanish Pepe, are deeply affected by what is happening in Spain.
John, I believe you drew on events in your own family history to write this novel. Could you tell me something about that?
Back in 1937, my mum and dad, Jessie and Frank, were young, newly-married and committed to fighting the rise of fascism. When 4,000 refugee children arrived in Britain from northern Spain, sailing on the boat Habana from Bilbao, they volunteered to ‘adopt’ one of the children. I knew him only from photographs in our family album, and that his name was Jesús. He had returned to Spain, and I had never met him or heard anything more from him. In my family, growing up in the 50s and 60s, Spain was a forbidden country – we boycotted it because of Franco’s dictatorship.
Unfortunately my mum and dad died when I was a teenager so I didn’t get to ask them all the questions that I would now wish to ask. But three years ago my daughter Jessie (named after my mum) gave me a book Only for Three Months (by Adrian Bell) that told the story of the refugee children. It’s an extraordinary and little-known story, and it was one of my main sources in writing Spanish Crossings. It allowed me to reconnect with my family history and to take that as inspiration for the novel.
Your descriptions of 1940s London come across as very authentic. How did you go about researching the background for this novel?
That time was history for me, but it was also only a few years before I was born. I remember growing up in flats facing a bombed site from the war. Those flats were Levita House that feature as a location in part of the novel. The main detail – particularly of the 1943/44 period – came from reading. I found the local history archive in Holborn Library useful for articles; read a lot of fiction written and set in the period; and found contemporary photographs amazingly evocative.
Is the story of Lorna and Pepe based on any real history you discovered in your research?
Neither character is directly based on a real character but each is an amalgam of people I knew or read about. People often assume Lorna is based on my mum, but she isn’t – though I imagined my mum might have been present as an observer in many of the scenes. Pepe came mainly from my imagination and reading, but probably the most important influence was a photograph of a boy called Angel who was a friend of Jesús.
How would you describe Lorna? Did you find any problems in writing from the point of view of a woman?
The first words for the book – “Mother declared herself happy” – came to me in a dream when I was staying in Seville in 2014. That’s the only time that has happened to me. I wrote down the words in my notebook when I woke up and that day I wandered around Seville writing in my notebook while sitting in cafes and parks. By the end of the day I had the first draft of what is now the Prologue of Spanish Crossings. So my first writing about Lorna (as I subsequently called her) was in the form of a frail old lady visiting Spain for the first time in the mid-1980s. But the Prologue established so many threads of the backstory, and I wanted now to imagine what Lorna had been like in her prime, in the 30s and 40s.
It was a great starting point, having that backstory, and Lorna came to life in my head fairly easily. I’d been brought up in a household where left-wing politics were constantly discussed, so Lorna came out of that knowledge and experience. I’d seen and heard people who were politically idealistic, as Lorna is, and I’d seen that this didn’t make them romantic dreamers. They wanted to do practical things to make the world a better place. Lorna has that aspiration, even as she realises the difficulty of her ambitions in those turbulent times. She is a determined fighter, part of what drew her towards her real love Harry, the International Brigade member.
I think it was only after the book was written that people asked the question you ask. I hadn’t asked it of myself while writing. It just seemed a natural thing to do in fiction – to write from the point of view of any of your characters. Of course there are things I have never experienced as a man – for example, a miscarriage – but I’ve never experienced being a soldier either. It’s what I really love about writing fiction, you enter the lives and minds of other people, discovering more about them and more about yourself.
Spain is ever-present in this novel, partly through Lorna’s passionate political beliefs, partly though Pepe’s yearning for his lost country. Yet except for the prologue and epilogue in the 1980s, all the action happens outside Spain, mainly in London. The sense of exile is potent. Did you manage to speak to any of the few Spanish exiles still alive? Or to their children?
I think the sense of exile is common, and always poignant, not simply in the Spanish context. When I ran a writing course in Wales a few years ago I was introduced to the Welsh word Hiraeth. I was told it has no English equivalent but refers to a yearning for your lost homeland. It’s a powerful emotion and in a way we all feel that sense of exile from where we originally came from. I sensed that in the photographs of the Spanish refugee children, even those who stayed.
After I’d written the novel I was lucky enough to meet some of the refugees who had stayed on and made their lives in Britain. In that strange spirit of serendipity it turned out that my next-door neighbour Rosa (who’s Spanish) had an aunt Agustina who lived just up the road. I had a very pleasant and moving afternoon talking to this lovely old lady who had lived a full life in London after leaving Spain as a child.
How did you come up with the title?
As you say, very little of the book is set in Spain but the episodes that feature Spain are about crossings (by boat in the case of the children, over the mountains in the case of the International Brigaders, across the estuary at the close of the book). It seemed to fit, and I guess I also had a faint thought of exploring ‘trust’. Is this character to be trusted or is he in some sense ‘double crossing’? But, of course, journey metaphors also relate to psychological states and the book is about individual relationships with all those borders that exist in life – political, social, class, cultural.
Did you know what the ending would be when you started writing the novel?
I don’t think I knew what the beginning would be when I started. But it led on quickly from that Prologue. Fairly early on I decided on the three-part structure of the book so I knew where the story was heading, though there were many changes along the way before I got to the final chapters.
Spanish Crossings was published on the 80th anniversary of the arrival from Bilbao of the Habana, the ship carrying 4,000 child refugees to Britain after the bombing of Guernica. Do you think it’s important that people today know the history of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath? Why?
History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes. I believe in the truth of that. I was conscious of writing a novel that had many modern points of resonance. The refugee situation is the obvious one, but I think it’s broader than that. I find it horrific that, despite the Second World War, we look around at examples of modern demagoguery and political brutality. I think we can, and should, know what happened in the past – particularly in the relatively recent past. It’s the best way of avoiding similar mistakes in the future, though we don’t seem to be particularly good at doing that. I was struck a few days ago to hear Lord Adonis likening the situation of Brexit to the 1930s and appeasement. I don’t think you can ever say specifically ‘don’t do that, look what happened on 24th April 1937’ – but it does help to see life today in a historical context. Human beings don’t change that much.
It’s a human story but Lorna’s socialist convictions come across strongly. Was there a political motive to writing this novel? What do you hope readers come away with after reading your novel? Does it have lessons for today?
Lorna’s convictions are similar to the ones I was brought up with through my mother. But I don’t see Spanish Crossings as a didactic novel. There is no party-political message in it. But on a broader level, yes, I hope people will come away with a reinforced belief that we are all individual human beings, we each of us deserve respect and need to give others respect. We should remember the past without allowing the past to dictate our future.
You’ve written non-fiction books and you teach creative writing for business. What do you think are the main differences between writing for business and writing fiction? In both there must be a connection with the reader (as you say on your Dark Angels website, (www.dark-angels.org.uk), but is it the same?
In our Dark Angels workshops, we always have two strands – business writing and personal writing. That’s because we believe each can inform and improve the other. Business writing needs to be more human and individual; personal writing can learn from the best of business writing to use words with impact.
Which do you prefer? What made you turn to fiction?
I’ve always wanted to write fiction. My first novel Leaves was only published in 2015 but I started out originally writing it straight after university. I set it aside for decades and revised it more recently; it was published more than forty years after the first words were written. But that’s a good example of why I prefer fiction: it lives with you, it’s part of you, and you walk around with a whole world in your head, and that world is full of interesting characters that you learn a little bit more about every day.
What are you working on now? Is there a new novel in the pipeline?
I still run my Dark Angels workshops and I still write special commissions in the business world – they help subsidise my fiction from which I have few expectations of making money. But I carry on writing fiction because I love it, so I am currently writing the final chapter of a new novel called The Good Messenger. This time I am setting it either side of the First World War. It begins in 1912 and ends in 1927, with a short middle section on Armistice Day 1918 (that gives me a target for a publication date). With the first draft completed soon, I’ll then have a few months of editing before I can show it to anyone. In a strange way I see it as the prequel to Spanish Crossings. Part of me is thinking in rather grandiose terms that I might need to write a third novel, set after the time of Spanish Crossings, to make a trilogy.
John, thank you so much and I look forward to reading The Good Messenger. In the meantime, I would thoroughly recommend Spanish Crossings, which throws a fascinating light on the story of Guernica and the Basque refugee children.