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WWI Wednesdays: Tom Palmer remembers a football hero’s experience in the trenches

WWI Wednesdays - Tom Palmer

It’s hard to believe it’s February already ”“ does anyone else feel the year is racing by? This month we are proud to publish two fantastic novels set during World War One and to mark their publication we are running a mini-series here on the blog called WWI Wednesdays. Each Wednesday in February we’ll hear from a Barrington Stoke author who has written about WWI. More specifically, we find out more about the real individuals and events that inspired their books. Today we catch up with Tom Palmer, author of Over the Line, which is based on true events. You can find out more about the novel over on our WWI website Reading War.

Hi Tom!
In Over the Line you write about Jack Cock, a professional footballer who played in the Footballers’ Battalion in WWI. What appealed to you about Jack’s story?
Jack’s story appealed because he survived. He went through one of the worst things modern man has had to go through, but lived on and stayed sane enough to achieve his dream: to play football for his country. That he made his debut in England’s first game after WWI ”“ and scored after 30 seconds – felt to me a slap in the face to the stupidities of that war.

What difference do you think writing about a real person makes?
It’s enormously different. It is a massive responsibility. I wrote a book about men who did their duty and died or suffered greatly for their country. Therefore I had a duty to them – to tell their story as well as I could. One character in Over the Line was Sid Wheelhouse. He was a Grimsby Town player. He died in a gas attack in the trenches. While researching the book in France I found his grave. That was when I realised what the difference is when writing about real people. It shook me. I vowed to myself that I would do Sid Wheelhouse justice. I tried really hard to achieve that. I met a relative of Sid’s recently. He said that I did do Sid justice. That meant more to me than any other thing that has happened to me in my life, outside certain family matters.

Are there any particular challenges in writing about a real person?
Lots. That however hard you want to get it right, most of what you write is invented and therefore open to question. That you might offend a relative of the person you are writing about, damage their memory of someone that they loved. That you are sat at a laptop somewhere warm and dry, sipping coffee, not under fire, trying to evoke emotions and thoughts about the most unimaginably terrible and terrifying experiences and that you might be off the mark and might be just exploiting their nightmare for your own selfish desire to tell a story that people are going to praise you for. However, you still have to try and do it because it is a story that needs telling over and over.

As a reader of historical fiction, do you have a preference for books based on actual people?
No. I like both grounded fiction and invented. Both can work. In a way, books about invented people can go further because the writer does not have to worry about the things I mentioned in my last answer.

Do you think historical fiction can do anything that non-fiction can’t?
Yes. Through using writing tools like dialogue, interior voice and by manipulating the reader’s emotions you can get closer to what was personal in history. That is what sets fiction apart from other forms: it allows the reader – and writer – access to the psychology of being a human being. Something we can all empathise with. Something that takes us closer to understanding the past. Saying that, there are forms like reportage and memoir that can achieve that magnificently too.

There is a real fashion at the moment for stories about animals in WWI, perhaps inspired by War Horse and its huge success. What do you think of these types of stories?
Animal stories set in WWI can be amazing. They work especially well for children. Michael Morpurgo is superb at this kind of book. He has given a generation an understanding of aspects of our history that may have passed them by otherwise. They now know things that may help their generation do better than previous generations. Through understanding. This gives Michael Morpurgo well-earned legendary status in my opinion. But what he does can only be done by great writers. There are some animal based WWI stories – which have emerged since War Horse – that are absurd and they really annoy me.

Thanks Tom!

What are your own favourite stories of WWI? Do these include real-life events and people – or even stories about animals in the War? Please do tell us in the comments, and make sure to visit Reading War for video and audio, playscripts, posters and more to help bring WWI to life in the classroom.

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