Thievery: The Repercussions
On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their work. Here’s one from the rather wonderful Catherine Hall.
The Repercussions is published by Alma Books.
Susie, I think I’m in trouble.
I’m not in Kabul any more. I’m not in London either. I’m in Brighton.
Trouble or not, there’s a comfort to being at the very end of England, on the coast, right where ground meets sea. I could find my exact location on a map in a second, and after all those times of having no idea where I was, stuck somewhere dark and lost and dangerous, that’s a real relief.
I’m sitting in one of those old-fashioned wicker chairs – Lloyd Loom, I think they’re called – on a balcony. Well, not quite a balcony: one of those covered-in terraces you get in seaside towns, like a greenhouse stuck to the wall, one floor up. A gulkhana, they’d call it in Afghanistan, a flower room for ladies to sit in and catch the winter sun, although that’s a grand word for such a small space, just enough for a chair, and a little glass-topped table, and plants, lots of them, all over the place, hanging from the ceiling, in pots on every surface, climbing up the window frames. I could almost imagine I was in a jungle, although after everything that’s happened it’s probably better I don’t.
I can see the mad, glittery mess of the pier, lighting up the water, bouncing its reflection off jet-black sea.
Wait, I’m going to open the window, I want to smell sea air, even though it’s freezing cold outside. There, it’s flooding in, as if the tide’s pushing it into the flat. I can hear the waves breaking, steady and soothing, calm.
I need a bit of soothing. I feel strange tonight, like I always do when I get back, caught between different worlds. This morning, high up in the mountains, I heard the call to prayer as I packed my bags. Now it’s banging music and shouts from kids out on the town.
My bags are in the corner, where I dumped them when I got here. I haven’t unpacked yet. It used to drive you crazy – didn’t it? – the way I’d come back home and leave my stuff in the corner for weeks, just pulling things out as I needed them. Presents too, though, always, for you – I was good at those, at least.
I know there’s not much point in remembering. I know we can’t go back to what we were. But I wish I could crawl into bed and put my arms around you and know that I was home.
The Repercussions has two main stories, intertwined in various ways. My main character – or one of them – is Jo, who’s a war photographer who’s just returned from Afghanistan and has moved into the Brighton flat that she’s inherited from her great-aunt. She’s in a bad way because of things that happened in Afghanistan and hopes to hide out for a while and sort herself out. She finds a diary in the flat that belonged to someone called Elizabeth, who nursed Indian soldiers at the Brighton Pavilion in the first world war. Reading this diary forces Jo to come to terms with things that happened in Afghanistan but also her relationship with her ex girlfriend Susie – the book is written in the form of a long confession to her. So actually, having said there’s two, there’s actually four stories being told: what happened to Jo in Afghanistan, what’s happening to Jo now, what happened with Susie, and what happened to Elizabeth in 1915.
I was inspired to write the book about five years ago after reading an article in the Guardian about the Brighton Pavilion being used as a hospital for Indian soldiers. I used to live in Brighton and had always liked the Pavilion and its crazy architecture – this Orientalist fantasy built for the Prince Regent at the end of the eighteenth century. I’ve lived and worked in India, too, and I’m fascinated by its complicated history with Britain.
I hadn’t known that Indian soldiers had fought for Britain in World War One but lots did. At one point on the Western Front, it’s estimated that one in 10 of the soldiers was Indian. It was the first time they’d fought outside Asia and they just weren’t equipped for it. They arrived in Autumn 1914, lots of them in light khaki uniforms and they didn’t receive warm clothing for months. They were used to fighting in the mountains, but here they were, facing trench warfare with its machine gun fire and poison gas. It must have been unspeakably awful. Imagine then, after being wounded, being put on a train to England and ending up in a seaside town in a royal pleasure palace with these massively ornate chandeliers and frescoes It must have blown their minds.
I found a photograph of a group of white doctors in the Pavilion operating theatre, plus a white nurse and an Indian doctor. But British nurses were actually only allowed to work in a supervisory capacity and they were removed altogether from the Pavilion in June 1915, in mysterious circumstances. I wondered what was the story behind that. Certainly there was a deep-seated fear of inter-racial relationships. The authorities were desperate to avoid any hint of scandal and were terrified of the sexual contact between the Indians and white women.
So I decided to write the story of how female nurses came to be banned from working at the Pavilion – of the relationship that develops between Elizabeth and Hari, who’s an Indian medical student who’s been studying at Oxford and the effect of that on her fiancee, Robert, who’s a captain in the army.
There were actually three hospitals in Brighton for Indian soldiers – but it was the Pavilion that caught the imagination of the public, and it became, in its way, a media spectacle. And that wasn’t by accident. The Pavilion was all about propaganda, an example of how well the British were treating their troops from overseas. I started to think about propaganda, and what we know about war. How do we build up an image of what is happening, often in a place or a context that’s very far away and different to our own?
This was something I’d been thinking about for years. I used to work for an international peacebuilding organisation and in 2003 I took a trip to Rwanda with a photographer to talk to people and take photographs that we could use for our communications work. We went to a school where hundreds of people had been massacred that’s now a memorial. I saw 25 classrooms full of skeletons and partially preserved bodies, including little babies still tied to their mothers’ backs.
I was profoundly affected by that trip. For months I felt sick, and had terrible nightmares. The photographer I was with had been there during the genocide and she was still traumatised. And so I began to wonder what it must be like for a war photographer, who sees more wars and even more close up, than most soldiers. And that was where the idea for Jo, my war photographer came from. I wanted to look at the impact of her career on her relationship with her girlfriend Susie, how they dealt with her always being away and with her being so used to the adrenalin rush of war that she was almost scared of normal life, and definitely scared by the idea of Susie having a baby. I wrote this book in between having my two children and so I guess the theme of the impact of kids on relationships was very much on my mind.
All of my characters are affected by war. Jo, whether she’ll admit it or not, is suffering some sort of trauma, the patients in the Pavilion are suffering from shell-shock, and Robert, Elizabeth’s fiancee is a changed person because of what happened to him in the trenches. Which I guess is where the title of the book, The Repercussions, came from. In all my books I’m fascinated by the idea of dealing with the consequences of your actions.
It’s a complicated book. There’s lots of different strands to it, and it’s pretty dark. One of my friends said the other day “If I pick up a Catherine Hall novel, I don’t expect a happy ending. That’s not what I’m looking for”. I happen to think that one of the endings to this book is a happy one! I’ll be interested to see if its readers agree…
The Repercussions is published by Alma Books.