The true bits

Often, when reading a novel, I wonder about the author’s reason for writing on that topic, or telling that side story, or even the whole story. Sometimes there is an obvious truth in there – it seems clear that the author knows of what s/he writes.

Of all my novels Angelica Died is the most taken from life. Yes, The Dream covers places and even some of my own experiences in New Zealand, but it is a different thing with Angelica Died. I wanted very much to get across the feel of a sixties hospital and indeed a sixties ‘special school’. Readers might notice the child character of Mandy who crops up at both places. Although not exactly me, she does have some of my characteristics at that age, and both St Anne’s hospital and Medlar School are based on real places despite being thoroughly fictionalised.

I was in the children’s ward of a hospital for a year from the age of six to seven. There are many parts of Angelica Died that are actual memories. The gardens, the mice and rabbits, the hiding at bathtime, the terror of blood tests, the record player on the ward, the teacher who came in, the stern ward sister, the person who came in to read to us. I also wanted to include the song ‘A Lover’s Concerto’ because it has special meaning for me. At that time I thought it was the most beautiful song/music ever written.

I omitted a lot of my less pleasant experiences of hospital such as getting ‘nits’ and feeling like a pariah; the terrible loneliness when my best friend was discharged; the standoffs with the nurses over wearing the hospital ‘uniform’ – once coming to a tug of war with a nurse who tried to drag my cardigan off my shoulders; the sadness of watching the rest of my family go off and leave me there, on their way to a fair; and so on.

I described Medlar School quite differently from the real ‘special school’ I attended. As I also attended a second ‘special school’ later I mixed them up a little, but still there are many aspects of Medlar School that were also real. The swing bars in the playground on which I spent countless happy hours (and never fell off!); the swimming pool; the forced church attendance; the nurses; the teachers and house mothers, many of whom lived on the premises and worked all hours.

Again, I missed out the unpleasant parts although I alluded to them. Most of the staff were kind but there was the occasional exception. Both schools were very strict and vetted our letters home – I was hauled up before the head of my second school for posting off a letter to my parents that had been unseen by staff. The worst of it was the lonely helplessness. In a way I also used this in The Legacy when I made Fallady an orphan who had been in a children’s home. Of course I had parents but I had no access to them. We weren’t allowed phone calls home at my first school but even if we had been my parents weren’t on the phone. The only access was through the vetted letters, which, obviously, were full of pleasant events and general news.

If one was in trouble with staff, punished or disciplined (sometimes extraordinarily unfairly) there were no parents to turn to, and by the time they heard about it, during the school holidays, the whole sting had gone from the event. In these circumstances, especially as my parents were unable to visit very often and a full term could go by in which I didn’t see them, I turned to sympathetic staff members as parental figures. Hence, it seems, the creation of Miss Gilbertine in The Legacy and Maud Pengilly in Angelica Died. Both are a sort of sympathetic amalgam, with much fictionalisation, of the two female members of staff I clung to at my first school. There was also a male teacher that I idolised as a father figure and who has sadly been dead for many years.

So, those are some of my ‘true bits’, and no doubt more of them will turn up, sometimes unwittingly, in future novels.

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