Life, War, Books

Life, War, Books

I am happy to tell you that Sea Music is on a special offer of 99p for the whole of March! So do take advantage or tell your friends who might not have read it yet.

Sea Music and The Long Road from Kandahar were written years and years apart, yet they are both, in very different ways, about the tragedy of war and the consequences and trauma war has on family life that can reverberate down the years.

Some of my readers will know the story of Sea Music. I wrote it in 2002 and my inspiration was an extraordinary woman. I met walking my dog on a deserted creek path at dusk. (The story of meeting Milly is on my website)

As we walked Milly apologised for walking so slowly. She told me she had been interned in a concentration camp by the Germans in the second world war. It was the only time she spoke to me of this time in her life. She disappeared into the dark and I did not find her again until after I finished Sea Music, a novel of her imagined life, one I felt strangely impelled to write. The story of Martha and her family. Milly approved and loved the book, but she made me change the ending. ‘It must end with the young and the next generation, with hope.’ She was right. Milly and I were close friends until she died.

As I researched the Warsaw Ghetto for Sea Music, I found the story of another brave woman, Irena Sendlerowa. This brave woman smuggled hundreds of children through the sewers and out of the ghetto to safety. She too was captured and tortured by the Germans. She was the only real person in my book, but I wanted people to know her name and remember what she did.

About a year after Sea Music came out and just before the Polish edition was due to be published, I received a phone call from a Polish lady called Lily, living in London. She had been sent my book by a relative. She asked me why I had put Irena Sendlerowa, a real person, in my novel. Quaking slightly, I explained. Lily told me she was a close friend of Irena Sendler. Mrs Sendlerowa was still alive and living in Warsaw. I was stunned, so sure was I that she must have died. It was a relief that Lily had only good things to say about Sea Music.

When I told her that the book had been translated into many languages and was coming out in Polish in a few weeks she astonished me by asking if I would like to go to Warsaw and meet Irena Sendlerowa. She went to Warsaw to visit her friend once a year and she would try to arrange it. Perhaps it could be timed with the Polish publication of my book? By now I realised Lily was a force to be reckoned with. She was going to give me a chance of a lifetime to meet a real heroine.

I did fly to Warsaw. I did meet the wonderful, small and frail Irena Sendlerowa.  Her goodness radiated out into the stuffy little room where she was being cared for. She had my book beside her.  Sitting with her holding my hands between hers was a profoundly emotional experience. The brave, young and imagined Irena had lived with me for months. Here was the real Irena, old, looked after and safe, but never from memory or nightmare. Like Martha in my book, her sadness would always lie somewhere inside her. Irena Sendlerowa had that particular stillness that comes with the pain of seeing too much. The trauma of war stays forever.


We do not write books for the horror of war, but to applaud and wonder at the strength of the human spirit, the sheer bravery and goodness of ordinary people rising up together to try to combat an evil force in any, and every way they can. Love for country and family, belief that good and right must eventually prevail, is what powers the human race to survive; to be courageous, to have hope.

A few months ago, as I finished The Long Road from Kandahar, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban with tragic speed and terrible consequences for that beleaguered country.

It was inconceivable that any of us could have dreamed, then, that peace for the western world, peace we have all taken for granted, would also be shattered forever One evil dictator intent on wiping out the lives and freedoms, the hopes and dreams of the men, women and children of Ukraine. All living, until a week ago, in a peaceful, prosperous country looking forward to its future. It feels surreal even to write that Russian soldiers have invaded a sovereign state to bomb and mow down innocent civilians who did nothing to provoke this horror.

It feels like a horrible dream we cannot wake up from. It is hard to concentrate on the things that fill our lives. Books suddenly seem unimportant and inconsequential. But books link and bind us together. Words inform and comfort. We are educated by them and derive great joy from them. We all need escape. We need to laugh and cry. To be immersed in fantasy, in other lives. History repeats itself. The ease of our lives is not a given. We need to be vigilant of those who govern us. Guard the freedoms we still take for granted here in Britain, where democracy is beginning to be threatened in many small, invidious ways. Because that is how it starts. We know how it can end. Books bring us and the world closer. Let’s keep reading and writing, hoping and dreaming. And praying for the people of Ukraine.




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