Novelist Chris Cleave: ‘We exist mostly through blind luck’

Author Chris Cleave

Author Chris Cleave - Credit: Archant

Bestselling novelist Chris tells Bridget Galton how a cache of his grandparents’ love letters inspired him to write about the bravery and complexity of their generation who lived through the uncertainty death and chaos of the Second World War

Chris Cleave’s grandparents had met only nine times when they were separated by war.

For three years they corresponded by telegram and letter; David in Malta and Algeria, Mary in blitz-torn London.

It was a stash of his grandfather’s “extraordinarily intense” letters that inspired the novelists’ latest book Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Simon&Schuster).

The 42-year-old was amazed at their generation’s self control, faith and endurance in the face of hunger, uncertainty and death.

“Eight years ago my grandfather asked me to type up a memoir and I discovered he had a pretty amazing war, stationed in Malta during the siege, in charge of looking after Randolph Churchill.

“Mary had catalogued and kept all David’s letters; they had fallen in lust through these emotionally powerful letters that were a thin fragile lifeline. Ten pages at a time of intimate hopes and fears that nurtured a relationship. Sadly hers are at the bottom of the Med because his trunk came home on a different ship which was sunk by a U-boat.”

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Mary herself had a brush with death when a bomb landed on an East End cinema killing her first fiancée sat next to her. She woke three days later in hospital to find his irate wife at her bedside.

“Luckily all four grandparents survived. I realised that nearly everyone exists through blind luck, a result of bloodlines and having somehow through design or skill come through.”

After interviewing people who lived through the war, putting himself on wartime rations, and visiting Malta, Cleave was determined to create a more nuanced view of the emotional lives of wartime Brits.

“The first wave of books and movies were understandably jingoistic propaganda but subsequent portrayals leaned heavily on those originals. We’ve come to believe that generation were humourless stiff upper lips and we risk forgetting how amazing and complicated they were.”

Cleave believes their ability to endure sprang from: “their love for each other, their faith in their collective project and a mischievous sense of humour.”

“The strength of Britain during the war came from conversation and humour. Despite everything we were still free – if the Germans had invaded and laid siege to London – I don’t believe London would have ever capitulated.”

Cleave’s book focuses on Mary, a blueblooded socialite who defies expectations to teach the children who were not evacuated, and falls into a love triangle with art restorer Alastair and fellow teacher Tom. Cleave’s research revealed the 20 per cent of children who stayed were often at the margins of society; black, disabled or with learning difficulties.

“In 1,000s of evacuation photos I saw prototypical shiny blonde children, yet photos of 1930s street scenes showed lots of black kids.”

Wondering how London’s estimated 10,000 black families had fared, he speculated they would have fallen foul of a system that lined evacuated children up in village halls for locals to choose.

Yet the children who stayed in London ran feral, with no schooling or childcare.

“It was an incredibly racist society and the chaotic system of letting locals pick the children they liked was unfair and sinister.

“Black families were treated dreadfully, there are examples of then being chucked out of air raid shelters during a raid. It’s a story that hasn’t been told about a time we think was our finest hour; a period that informed our national identity. It’s worth remembering we were not gods. Our society had the same faultlines of class and race that it does today.”

Cleave’s deliberately set his book between 1939–1942 when Britain was standing alone and the characters wre unsure of the outcome of the war or their own survival.

“We hadn’t won, we had held out until the Americans got there. But for a tiny little country it was an amazing achievement. I wanted to explore the psychology behind that tenacity. They had such faith in each other, they had to make these snap decisions over falling in love with a person. That showed amazing trust in humans being good. That underpinning of belief in humanity enabled then to have very long distance relationships and kept them faithful, hopeful and alive.”

His experience on rations taught him how hungry they often were. But he also discovered “how much of the stuff on the ration I had no use for”.

“8oz of tea every week is a lot of tea. 2oz of lard and 4oz of butter were much more than I would eat. There was no fresh fruit. The things I wanted to eat weren’t available. I had to get into the mindset that there was nothing tasty, vivid or beautiful.”

But his research couldn’t help him understand their sense of not knowing the ending. “How to live with that lack of certainty of how long you would have to endure.”

Cleave who won a global audience with bestselling books such as The Other Hand, says he always starts with a question and hopes to offer readers a new place from which to reflect on their own lives.

“My only claim for my work is the questions I start with are ones that everyone’s interested in. This one was: What does it mean to be a brave person? I tried to make my characters explore that question in a way that made people curious about their own stories, and those who in the face of the randomness and chaos of war were admirably brave.”

Chris Cleave gives a Primrose Hill Books talk on April 20th at 6.45pm at Wac Arts centre, Haverstock Hill. Tickets £10