I have just returned from a research trip to northern France and Belgium for my latest book, The Very White of Love, which I hope to finish by September this year. It’s a love story set in World War Two, inspired by a box of love letters I found after my mother’s death, from a young British soldier, who died in France in 1940. She never really found out how – so I have spent several years trying to fill in the gaps, and tell their story.
I have been lucky enough to spend much of my life as a writer, on the road, chasing stories all over the world for publications like National Geographic or The London Sunday Times. Recently, I have been working on the book, so I have been spending most of my time cooped up in my work room, writing. I had almost forgotten how exciting it is to head off into the unknown, with the key to a hire care, and some money, in your pocket, chasing a story in a place you have never been before.
This trip was to the area know as Picardy and Flanders, around the cities of Lille and Lens, where the main character of my book spent the last six months of his life. I also followed the route of his battalion into Belgium, near the medieval fortress city of Tournai, during the chaotic days after the German invasion in May 1940. This is definitely not the most beautiful part of la belle France: an area of coal mines and steel plants, autoroutes and heavy industry. And it was extremely cold ( as it was in January 1940), with about a foot of snow on the ground. But there were compensations.
The food, as always in France, was excellent, and perfectly suited to the cold, northern winter: heavy dishes cooked in terrines, like “casoulet,” or souris d’agneau,” a lamb shank cooked with thyme and served with mashed potato. I discovered a fabulous new wine ( Chateau Pichon-Bellevue, from the Bordeaux region) and, more surprisingly, because I am not a beer drinker, the pleasures of Belgian beer. Like Grimbergen Reserve, a golden-brown ale brewed at an 11th century abbey. It was absolutely fantastic, the beer equivalent of champagne!
More importantly, the four days of research, though cold and exhausting ( c.f the photo, below) were immensely rewarding. Two World Wars were fought in this part of France and everywhere I went I came across British cemeteries: simple, evocative places that commemorate the dead, beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I found them profoundly moving. And, like many places, where life is tough, the people in this part of northern France made up for their region’s lack of attractions with their warmth and sense of solidarity. Everywhere I went I found people who helped me or gave me important, new information: like the elderly nun at a convent in Belgium, who produced a handwritten diary detailing the arrival of the British troops in her area. A writer’s gift.
So I have returned loaded to the gills with audio tapes and photos, and notebooks: base metal, which I hope I be able to turn into gold.