Alan Hamilton lives near Bristol, England and has a degree in History from Oxford and an MSc from Nottingham Trent University. He has written the book, Two Unknown, a tragedy surrounding a boy and girl in the 1920s…
Two Unknown is a book full of love, betrayal, death and deceit. Tell us more!
‘Two Unknown’ was inspired by the eighty-year-old mystery surrounding ‘The Children of Charfield’ arising from the railway accident fifteen miles north of Bristol on October 13 1928. At least sixteen people died, if not from the impact itself then from the fire that consumed most of the passenger carriages.
Among the charred remains were said to be those of a school-age boy and girl. These remains were never claimed by anyone and it was impossible to identify them, although at the consequent inquest substantial efforts were made to do so. Evidence was also given to the inquest by a railway official who claimed to have seen the young people on the train. The remains were buried, with those of ten other victims, in a common grave below a memorial erected by the Railway Company, which lists the details of the ten followed by the words ‘Two Unknown’.
It defies belief that no one connected with them knew a boy and girl, described as middle-class and unaccompanied by an adult, were travelling on that train. If nobody admitted that knowledge it must have been because they had reason not to. The fact that in more than eighty years the children have still not been identified suggests that any conspiracy to conceal knowledge of them must have been among a tiny group, probably restricted to the minimum number of two people, because the greater the number of those conspiring the greater the likelihood that the truth will out.
I wanted to create a believable though obviously fictional explanation for the mystery and that meant creating a series of events that could lead up to two children being unaccompanied on an overnight train and then exploring the actions of those who knew who they were and remained silent. The context of the late 1920s helped to give plausibility to the tale I was going to tell. Today, it seems completely impossible that two such children could ‘disappear’ like that. We have cradle-to-grave documentation, registration and supervision. The state is ever-present in our lives and keeping anything secret from the media, our neighbours and our relatives is well-nigh impossible. I realised that between-the-Wars was ‘another country’ where they did things differently. People were far less nosy, the state virtually non-intrusive and the disruption to society caused by the War, the Spanish ‘flu and the breakdown of social rigidity had the effect of isolating people.
The accident was a tragedy for those involved, friends and relatives as well as victims, and I conceived my explanation as a tragedy. The essence of tragedy is a bad end for people who have brought it upon themselves by their actions, some deliberate, others unconscious or unintended. In the best tragedies the participants are never black and white, wholly bad or wholly good. Among the levers of tragedy are betrayal and deceit, failure to foresee, misplaced trust. The ultimate bad end is death, but this can also be metaphorical, like the death of love, belief or spirit.
I saw a middle-class family, adversely affected by the disruptions I’ve mentioned, on a path to tragedy made more slippery and dangerous by a stereotypical failure to communicate between adults, adults and children and by a generation gap that was probably wider then that at any time since. There is a wife wanting love from a husband who is obsessed with a love-object in his past, unobtainable because she is dead; an adolescent girl, the love-object’s daughter, who worships the ground the husband walks on, and a not quite adolescent boy who is convinced he should have been a girl and who longs for acceptance and affection.
Out of this awful, yet completely possible, scenario, I have created an explanation to the mystery which, if it is not the correct one, will be close to what probably happened.
You studied Modern History at University College, Oxford. Did this influence the setting of the book and help with the social and cultural details?
My love affair with History began at school and determined what I would read at University. I’ve also remained faithful to her for the rest of my life. I revel in the past and in many ways find it more rewarding than reading about or contemplating the present or the future.
But studying history, whether at an academic institution or as a private person, is quite different from the immersion you experience when you write about life in some past period. When you study history it’s usually to be able to draw conclusions and learn from it with reference to the present time, along the lines of those not learning from history being condemned to repeat it. When you fictionalise events in the past you go down to levels of detail so as to be able to absorb how people thought, talked and behaved then and, in some indefinable way, while writing you too become contemporary with them.
It wasn’t too difficult for me to do that for the between-the-Wars period. I was born only eight years after the time ‘Two Unknown’ is set in and much of what I remember as a child would not have been very different from a decade or two earlier. My mother often talked to me about her life in the 1920s and 1930s.
I read a lot of books about the period and spent hours with local newspapers of the time looking at advertisements, topics and happenings. Going through old photographs and people’s memoirs also puts you into the time you’re writing about. I was able to talk on the telephone to one old woman who recalled the Charfield accident. Her father wouldn’t let her go to see the scene, it was so awful. She remembered being woken by the bang of the collision. At ninety, she was bright as a button. So, no, you don’t need to be a historian to write creatively about the past; you need a feel for it and be willing to do the research to make it genuine for the reader.
Any author setting a novel in the past must keep faith with his or her readership. Where there are real facts, events and people woven into the story you must present them correctly. If you take any liberties with them you must tell your reader you have done so and why. And you mustn’t make judgments about the past or its actors by the standards of the present.
As an author do you find much spare time for the other things you like doing such as sailing and skiing?
I’ve always been active physically; the older you get, the more important it is to exercise and keep the heart and circulation in good working order.
Skiing happens one week a year, as does sailing in the Med. The dinghy racing, year round dependent on the weather, is a Sunday activity with Wednesday evenings added between April and the end of August. This feeds my need to compete and, of course, is highly social as well. My wife is a good skier and a more than competent sailor so we can do all this together. I also go to the gym two or three times a week for about an hour-and-a-half each time.
There’s plenty of time, then, for writing – and editing, my other job. I’m fairly disciplined, working from 9 to 1 (with a coffee break) and 2 to 5 or 6, Monday to Saturday, but I’ll work in the evenings after dinner if I’m either inspired to do so or I need to. Editing work is deadline driven. You get a piece of work from the publisher which invariably needs more time spent on it than they allow you and pay you for. If I have to finish a job, then everything stops until I’ve done that – even creative writing. Editing pays the bills.
Two Unknown is quite an intense book, will the next one be in a
similar vain or will you be writing something completely different?
For many years I’ve been intrigued by two questions posed by events that actually happened. One of them is ‘Who were the Children of Charfield?’ The other, ‘Who killed Julia Wallace?’ The first I tackled in ‘Two Unknown’. The second is the core of my next book. The reference is to the murder in Liverpool in 1931 which over the years has spawned seven non-fiction attempts to prove either that the husband (or someone else) did or didn’t do it and at least five works of fiction using the case as a basis for a ‘whodunnit’. It was the first and only case in English legal history where the Court of Appeal quashed a trial verdict on the grounds that the jury did not have sufficient evidence to convict but did not reverse it, in effect bringing in the Scots ‘Not Proven’.
As with ‘Two Unknown’, I aim to use the real events as a framework to explore characters, emotions and behaviours in a fictional setting. Recent research suggests there could have been a solution no one at the time or since has put forward and it has the potential to be a great story. So, yes, it will have the elements of darkness, of tragedy, of mystery but it will also develop the historical and local atmosphere of Liverpool when the Beatles and Bill Shankly were not even gleams in the eye of the future.
If you could give one bit of advice for budding authors, what would it be?
I don’t think that as a first-time writer myself I have any authority to offer advice to others. I was lucky in that I knew from the beginning what I wanted to write about, I had the confidence in my own ability to write good English and I knew how to go about organising the process. In some ways ’Two Unknown’ wrote itself. I just held the pen.
More info: Two Unknown is published on 1st October 2010 by Sparkling Books. Visit: www.sparklingbooks.com