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>> Evacuated from war-torn London

Evacuated from war-torn London

Evacuated from war-torn London

Lyla feels lost when taken from her mother's home, at the outbreak of World War II, to live with a great aunt in her country house, Furlongs. Then an entire school is evacuated to Furlongs and Lyla starts to make friends - and enemies. Author SAM ANGUS tells us more about her new book, SCHOOL FOR SKYLARKS.

While the backdrop to School for Skylarks is that of evacuation and coping with the privations of war, the focus of the story is Lyla and her desire to return to her mother's home in London.

Gradually, the reader comes to see inconsistencies in Lyla's narrative about her past with a mother whom she adores, as her great aunt and best friend Cat gently present an alternative view - one that Lyla refuses to acknowledge.

We spoke with author Sam Angus, who told us more about how School for Skylarks developed:

Q: Why did you decide to write about evacuation as a theme; the idea of children - and Lyla in particular - being taken from everything they know and love?

A: On a practical level for a novelist the circumstances of evacuation provide fertile grounds for stories. The child is separated from parents and from all he or she knows and everything is thrown into stark relief.

But in addition to this, I needed to have Lyla very much alone in order that she could, for such a long time, create a cocoon around herself in order to protect herself from the terrible truth about her Mother.

Q: Is Lyla's great aunt, Ada, inspired by anyone in particular? Which of her wonderful idiosyncracies did you most enjoy writing about?

A: Ada made me giggle all the way through the book. She is the adult I would have loved to have had around me when I was young, the person who debunks all the rules and shibboleths, who puts the cruel or ridiculous aspects of school life into perspective.

I loved her youthfulness and spirit and ferocity, her wisdom and her tenderness. To me, she is the ideal teacher, someone who makes you look far ahead, beyond exams and tests, to dream what you might do in life.

Q: What was your favourite moment to write about in School for Skylarks?

A: I really enjoyed writing most of this book because the characters were very vivid to me, especially the headmistress who is based on a headmistress I once had, but most of all I probably enjoyed writing the scene in which Great Aunt Ada discovers that her beloved horse has been hidden.

Lyla watches, horrified, as the horse begins to whinny from a first floor window. Ada looks up from her roses and roars with laughter. She is tickled by the fact of the horse being in the house and it is part of her kindness to the child she knows is deeply troubled that she says only how clever it was of the horse to take herself in to the house given that there is a war on and horses are being recruited to the army.

Q: There is a menagerie of creatures in School for Skylarks - which would you have at home if you could?

A: I've never had a ferret and I think that could be lots of fun - they're clever and playful and you'd find them in all sorts of unexpected places like laundry cupboards, making havoc with the feather pillows.

Q: You often cover war time in your books - why does it have such resonance for you?

A: War will always be interesting to me as a writer because the circumstances of war provide such great opportunities for the novelist.

When you're writing for the young, you are alway looking for a way of removing the adults so that the child can have experiences and adventures they wouldn't otherwise have unless you walk through a cupboard door or fall down a rabbit hole.

With war you don't have to escape into the realm of fantasy - everything is topsy turvy anyway - and almost anything can happen.

Q: Were you keen on history and perhaps visiting old places as a child?

A: I didn't really enjoy history at school until I started reading the poetry of the first and second world wars - when I was sixteen or so I came across the poetry of the period and that was my door into the subject.

I would have enjoyed history more if we'd spent more time on modern history and less on things like Vikings and Ancient Britons. Hence Lyla's comment in the story about there being no point at all in spending a whole term studying the Iron Age.

I don't have a favourite historical site but I do find any of those simple stone memorials that you see on village greens across the country - the memorials to the men of the village that gave their today so we might have our tomorrow - intensely moving, that villages so small and remote should have lost so many of their young men.

Q: You often write about war and its affect on those left behind. Where did you go to research how WWII impacted on women and children in the UK?

A: I found school magazines of the time. It is the small things you find out from those - the lack of paper to draw on for example - how brown packing paper was used for art classes and how you couldn't get tennis balls or rounders balls and the staff had to improvise. So the surprises for me, this time around in writing about the war, was the sheer difficulty of trying to run a school in those circumstances.

That and the fact of the courage and the sacrifice of the teachers - we all talk about the children who were evacuated - but so many teachers went with them and they, after all, just like the children, had left their homes to spend the entirety of the war far from home in order that those children might be educated.

Q: Did you research particularly into evacuation?

A: I read a lot about schools that had been moved from london to the countryside and I visited some of the great houses that were used as schools - such as Chatsworth and Longleat. I read through all the school magazines that I could get hold of for the years the schools were stationed at those houses and it was the articles in the school magazines that I found gave the most flavour and texture and sense of what it was to have been living in a great country house; how the kitchen coped with providing food, what sort of beds were used, how hot water was rationed out etc.

I also listened to recordings of women now in their nineties reminiscing about those years. All of the recordings I listened to spoke with great nostalgia about those days at Longleat and there was often a sense that nothing in life had ever been quite so vivid or wonderful to them since.

School days can be like that - whether you loved or hated them - they remain clear right to the end of your life and I think that is even more the case for those children who were sent away in war time into the rather beautiful and extraordinary circumstance of a great English Country House.

Q: How much research did you need to do into 1930's / 40's Britain to develp your setting, and is Furlongs based on a real place?

A: A lot. Real historical details are very helpful to a novelist and so Furlongs is based, in fact, not on one house but on a combination of houses, part Chatsworth, part Longleat, part a smaller West Country house I know a bit that was also used as a school.

The uniform and school timetable and the meals were taken from the school magazine of the school that was based at Longleat during the war and the feel of the house was in part, at least, inspired by audio recordings I listened to of old girls reminiscing about their time at Longleat. The cold, the mice, the ice in the water jugs, the lack of hot water, the lack of plumbing - all these things came up again and again, but always with fondness and affection.

Q: What would your top tips be for writing about war, or creating settings for historical fiction?

It is hard to place yourself in the past, to imagine a time and a place you have never known but the important thing for me at least is to remember that though circumstances change and times change, the human heart is always the same i.e. the things that motivate a child today - loneliness, fear, jealousy etc - are the same things that would have motivated a child then. The human heart is always the proper subject of fiction.

When I'm looking for historical context, I look for small details: like the kind of programme that would have been broadcast then, the popular songs of the day or the brand of chocolate bar or milk or cereal.

Food is always particularly useful, especially in a novel which is set almost entirely within the four walls of one house. News comes only from outside, from letters or newspapers, so the real markers of historical context in this story are probably just the increasing scarcity of everything - the rounders balls or the art paper, the lack of men about the place to get things done and so on.

Increasingly when I write now, I tend to put these things in afterwards so that I am not always stopping to look things up - that can be very distracting and, often in my case, a bit of an excuse not to write.

Q: Where do you do your writing and what are you writing now?

A: I do my writing wherever I am. All I need is silence and isolation. There was a time when all my children were small when the only place I could find that was the car so I would lock myself into it and write there and no one could get at me.

When I have the choice, I like to write inside the house at my desk, which is very large and which I keep completely clear so I am not distracted.

Just at the moment, I am not writing, but planning. That means waiting, researching, reading, note-taking and finally, wrangling my material and all my loose notes into a plot.

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