We had an excellent event yesterday evening. The speaker was the wonderful Vee Walker author of Major Tom’s War which tells the story of her grandfather Indian-born Tom Westmacott’s involvement in World War 1, and his marriage to her grandmother Evie, his later wife’s best friend.
Vee began by getting us to pair up with someone of the opposite gender: each had to speak ‘in character’ as someone from their own family history while the other questioned them about their life. It was a brilliant ice-breaker, which gave us just a taste of what it would be like to immerse ourselves in the life of someone in our family.
The ice suitably broken, we held the HighlandLIT AGM – Paul Shanks gave a report of activities in 2018, we passed the financial statement and a new constitution. The current committee members were re-elected, and were delighted when two people – Vee Walker, and Conor O’Hararah – volunteered to join their number, and were voted in.
For the rest of the evening Vee entranced us with a presentation about how she found her grandfather’s war-time diary, and began immersing herself in her grandparent’s early life, and the lives of others like the Mayor of Barvay, in Northern France, which Major Tom ultimately helped to liberate. Her talk was tailored for her audience of writers: she spoke about the need for research to ensure historical accuracy, and about the vagaries of the editing publishing process.
Over ten years, Vee extensively researched early 20th century life the UK, in France, and in India where Tom was born, and was a solicitor and part-time cavalry officer. The process of bringing the novel to birth involved bypassing the stereotypes, and learning what life in the trenches was really like – the interminable boredom, the parched summer earth beneath your feet, as well as the horror of mud, conflict and pounding shells.
It involved creating credible fictitious characters to accompany the real-life figures, and to bring the historical characters to life in a credible way. It also involved finding, touching reflecting on objects – she showed us Cavalry officer’s spectacles, tight-fitting so that they would not dislodge mid-gallop; the gift box given to combatants at Christmas 1914.
Vee’s passion for the project was apparent. She mentioned several times her sense that, in serendipitous way, things, not just words and story, were ‘given’ to her – the sheet of paper written on Armistice Day, 11/11/18 in Tom’s handwriting, which fell at her feet from a book which the Mayor had owned; the photograph of an aged cleric, mentioned in Vee’s narrative who looked exactly as she had described him. What moved me most was the pressed flower in Evie’s prayer book. I think Vee said she had given this flower to her grandmother as a child, and Evie had put it in the book where it waited to be found by the child’s adult self.
Major Tom’s War is a major project – Vee’s first novel, but one in which she deploys effectively skills she has developed over the years as a free-lance researcher and writer working in the field of museums and heritage.
A paperback 2nd edition of the novel is in the pipeline, as is a French translation. And there is a whisper of a film and a stage play.
‘100 years after the Armistice, their names will live forever.’ Vee had typed this above the book jacket on the final slide in her presentation. And she feels proud (and justifiably so) that because of her commitment, creativity, and perseverance her grandparents have been immortalised in this way.
Here's the excellent web site Vee Walker has posted, containing documents connected to Major Tom's War and a transcript of her grandfather's diary.