Monday, September 17, 2012


Writers are often asked where they get their idea for a story. Inspiration can strike in the most unexpected ways and sometimes there is no one trigger point for a story. 

GATHER THE BONES is a story that came from a number of different sources but it is perhaps a little brown book published in 1920 that I found at the back of my parents bookshelves that sowed the seeds of my hero, Paul’s war. Ypres and the Battle for Ypres 1914-1918, An illustrated history and guide”.

 It seems extraordinary that less than two years after the end of the war there was already a tourist industry around the battlefields, but the clue comes from a little insert on the town of Ypres which describes it as the “Centre for English, French and American Pilgrims”. In this little leaflet are advertisements for “Touring Cars” (wreaths by arrangement “placed on graves and photographed”), Hotels bearing the names “The Splendid” and “Hotel Britannique”. A good cup of tea in three minutes can be obtained from the Patisserie and Tea Rooms of Me Ve Vandaele on the Grand Place.

The Michelin Guides are ubiquitous today and I have a small collection of the narrow green guides for parts of France I have visited. It began in 1900 just as the first automobiles were appearing on the roads of  France. Two enterprising brothers, André and Edouard Michelin decided to produce a small guide, given free to motorists, listing petrol stations across France and information on where to get your vehicle repaired as well as crucial information on accommodation and meals.  In 1904 the Guide went international, with the publication of the Michelin Guide Belgium. 

The company must have seen the opportunity that existed and even while the war still raged it started to produce a produced a series of guides to the battlefields. According to a page in the guide, during the war itself, Michelin converted a warehouse into a hospital for the wounded, all funded by the company. It opened on September 22 1914 and the first wounded arrived that night. In all nearly 3000 soldiers were treated at the Michelin Hospital. (An illustrated booklet on how Michelin "did his bit" will be sent "free on application")

We are informed that during the Great War, Ypres was bombarded continuously for four years and 250,000 British fell defending the city. “Today Ypres is being quickly reconstructed,out of 5,000 Houses destroyed, 3,000 will have been rebuild by the end of 1923; thanks to the tenacity of the Population and financial help from the Belgium Government.”
“A number of quite up to date Hotels, providing every comfort: Central Heating, Electricity, Baths etc are already in full swing. ..The country around is agricultural, with villages and farms being rebuilt once more...Every convenience and comfort for Pilgrims and Tourists is to be had in Ypres...”

So we have hired our touring car (with a British Driver), fortified ourself with a 3 minute cup of tea and off we go. The most extraordinary thing about this little book are the illustrations: Before and After shots of little towns, chateau, woods and churches. Our touring car is pictured driving down a road lined by the broken stumps of trees and this is another taken at an intersection in what would have once been the thriving little town of Messines. 

My husband and I visited modern Ypres in 2005. Like the little towns of the Ypres salient it has been rebuilt, reconstructed to look as it did before 1914, but in the flat, green fields of the Ypres salient are the many, many cemeteries and memorials and in places it is still possible to see the craters and trenches that once criss crossed the area. 

Even ninety years after the last gun was silenced, the bodies of the missing were being discovered and a reinternment was occurring while we were there. I tried to imagine what it was like for the families of those young men who had no graveside to mourn and slowly the idea for Gather the Bones took shape.
I had Paul’s war there on my desk. In that non descript little book I had the images of the battlefields, the trenches, the concrete machine gun posts but more importantly I had the pilgrimage. Evelyn, Charlie’s mother, has to see where her son died, to really believe he is dead. It was the Evelyns who bought the 1920 Michelin Guide, booked the Hotel Splendid, bought their wreath and in their hired touring car, laid their ghosts to rest.