Read Regional transported me from Hull to Carlisle and from Yorkshire to County Durham, where libraries created the warmest welcome for readers and author alike.
News from Nowhere, my World War I novel, opened doors on a shared history to which people responded in deeply personal ways.
One reader emailed me about her family in North Wales (where the novel is set), and told me about a recent visit to the battlefields with her 87-year-old uncle, to see his Uncles’ graves for the first time. ‘So, I am sure you can appreciate why your book tugged at the heartstrings.’
I learned that staff in libraries are largely volunteers, who keep the pages turning in every sense. They run book groups and events and make eye-catching displays, and at each meeting provided tea and biscuits, homemade cake, and at one well-attended evening, wine and nibbles!
Audiences numbered from 12 to 30, many had read the novel and all asked searching questions. We heard about a memoir in the making, based on family letters from Africa in the ‘60s. Members of a writers’ group told us about memories collected for Armistice Day, including families’ struggles to get war pensions. A local history group is researching the role of women in the war and has invited me back to speak.
We heard a moving account from a woman who was a refugee in Israel, whose husband was enlisted in the ’73 war. She told us that at weekends the opposing sides played football together, only to resume fighting on Mondays. This had such strong echoes of the 1914 Christmas truce, that I read out the epigraph from David Jones’ World War I poem: ‘The enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure.’
Some people welled up when telling individual family stories which resonate a hundred years on; others were sorry they hadn’t asked more questions about their family history when they were younger. Discussion ranged from the inevitability of war, or otherwise, the role of women, and the recurring calamity of people displaced by war and conflict.
What we achieved together was to get behind the headlines of history and re-imagine the past, to re-tell it on a human scale. It has been a privilege to hear people’s life-stories through the shared experience of reading. Libraries play a hugely important role in this, bringing people together to explore thoughts, feelings and ideas through a passion for books.