Conversations with Spirits - and the Great War

Monday, 4 August 2014

In the unlikely event that this news has managed to pass you by, it is 100 years since Britain joined the First World War.

As the author of a novel set during the period, I thought this might be a good time to say something on the subject.

The Great War might seem like a rather incidental character in Conversations with Spirits – it is there, it gets referenced, but it's always far off; hovering about the scene’s edge…

There is a reason for this. When I started writing the book, I had not intended it to be set during the war at all - and indeed, making it so meant I was forced to juggle a few historical details. But, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a necessary thing to do.

At the start of the novel, Trelawney Hart is entirely self-absorbed. The fact that somewhere the war is going on is of little passing interest. His point of view – skewed by alcohol intake and personal tragedy – is entirely inwardly focussed.

Trelawney’s sedentary existence is a far removed as can be from the average soldier’s experience – he is leading a withdrawn existence, hidden away from the wider proclivities of life, he occupies a safe, luxuriant environment, his privilege being such that, in drinking to excess, he is slowly killing himself

In the novel, it is Conan Doyle that takes him to task:

“D’you know I was in France last month?’ the author asks, mid-way-through chapter VIII, whilst attending to the stricken protagonist. “I visited the frontline. There’re men out there - boys, even - living in mud trenches, getting shot at continuously, working twenty-four-hour shifts without rest or food in their bellies - and they’re clinging on to every minute. Just doing the best they can, doing whatever it takes, just to stay alive. And, then, here’s you…”

When I started to write the book, I had originally intended it to be set in 1920. This was because I wanted to introduce the ‘Cottingley fairy’ photographs to the story. And, whilst those pictures were in existence in December 1917, they did not come to Conan Doyle’s attention until a few years later. (He wrote The Coming of the Fairies in 1922.)

But, to have Trelawney idling around London’s clubland in 1920 would’ve trivialised him. (He might all-too-easily have fallen in with Bertie Wooster’s useless, mooching contemporaries.) And so, in order to emphasise Trelawney’s myopic self-indulgence, it seemed reasonable to place him in the midst of something as massive as the First World War - and for him to barely register it.

Trelawney’s life - such as it is - is utterly removed from the hardships endured by the average soldier. And, yet, at no point does he consider how lucky he is to be spared the terrible conditions of the trenches. Nor does he even ask himself why the room he occupies in his London club is always so empty. His preoccupation with himself is such that it utterly blinds him.

Conversations with Spirits had to be set in wartime, if only to highlight how truly lost Trelawney really is.

A century on from the start of the Great War, it is our duty - and our privilege - to remember those people that fought in it – and the immense sacrifices that they made.

Let us not forget.

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