Saturday, 24 March 2012

Not just a ship that sank

Anyone who reads my novels will know that class features heavily in them – in Summerset, Lou’s lack of class prevents her winning the heart of the man she loves; in Maudie, our eponymous heroine is constantly reminded of her lowly birth status by her aristocratic mother-in-law. I can’t say why I’m so obsessed with class – maybe it’s being English; maybe it’s because my mum worked for many years as a cleaner, and school holidays were spent in the homes of my ‘betters’ - seeing them for how they really were – the strange customs and quite often shocking slovenliness that any working-class woman wouldn’t dream of. Whatever my motives, I find the fact that I live in a society where your life’s path is more often based on your position at birth, rather than your subsequent achievements, quite fascinating.

I have to confess I knew little about the Titanic before the film in 1998. To me, it was always just the ship that hit the iceberg and sank, and a source of fascination for my oldest friend, Lynn, who was slightly obsessed with it! I sort of saw the film because everyone else was, and I was blown away – not by the cheesy love story, but by the fact that there was more to the Titanic than just the ship that sank. It came to symbolise the end of the Victorian era, and the values that English society had been built upon. Even as far back as 1998, I wondered how a First Class passenger, sitting in one of the many half-empty lifeboats would have felt, hearing the screams and cries for help of those who were doomed, just because they had been born poor. Of course, two years after the Titanic sank, came the First World War, when suddenly the very rich and the very poor were fighting alongside each other and the divisions of class started to erode. The poor found a voice, and after sacrificing so much for King and country, found it harder to return to bowing and scraping to those ‘above them’.

But first came the Titanic, and after a century of industrialisation, when machines transformed how we lived and worked, it could be argued that these metal gods were seen as infallible; and the Titanic came to represent man’s absolute faith in that which had been manufactured. The disaster came to show that when push comes to shove, Mother Nature can defeat anything that is man-made. I would imagine that by mid-April 1912, society would have felt the jolt when the ‘unsinkable’ ship was knocked out by an iceberg, and along with it, those who survived could speak of the horrific prejudices that prevented the poor from being saved.

I had no intention of writing a book based around the Titanic disaster – quite frankly it had been done to death; until, for a birthday present, I took Lynn to the Titanic Artefacts exhibition at the O2 in 2010, and I read the story of a woman who snatched a baby from another passenger just to get onto a lifeboat, refusing to hand it back for several days afterwards, claiming it was hers. Reading this, my vivid imagination came into play, and I wondered what it would be like if that happened, and the other woman refused to hand the baby back full stop. I originally wanted to write it as a sort of Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, where a woman is killed and it’s revealed she was the true mother of this rich man blah blah. It didn’t work, so I returned to my normal ‘romance’ genre – although there is very little traditional romance in Never Forget.

So many books and films based around the Titanic focus on what happened before, and during the disaster; but I’ve always wondered what happened to those people who survived. These were the days when Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was unheard of, and people just ‘had to get on with it’. To witness such a horrific accident would affect survivors forever and their lives would never be the same. I thought it would be far more interesting to write a book about the aftermath of the Titanic, and so Never Forget came to be. The story of two women from very different walks of life, who are brought together during one of the most extraordinary events in modern history, and from a random act – one woman snatching the baby of the other, their lives become intrinsically linked. The book spans from 1911 to 1940, and touches upon subjects like the First World War, the increasing power of America, the growth of the Socialism, women’s rights and finally the Second World War. So my book is about more than just a ship that sank. And indeed the Titanic itself was more than just the ship that sank. To me, it was the end of an era, and the start of modern society as we know it.

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