Author Chris Cleave on his grandparents' wartime letters

From Nine To Noon, 10:09 am on 26 April 2016

British author Chris Cleave moved to Malta for three months, living on war rations and sleeping where his grandfather was billetted during WWII for his new book Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

The novel is inspired by the hundreds of letters, telegrams and postcards his grandfather Captain David Hill – trapped in Malta – sent to his then-fiancée Mary, who was in London.

But Chris knew that writing the book would require more than just reading the letters and doing historical research – he wanted to experience life as his grandfather had during the Siege of Malta.

Interview highlights:

On his grandparents' love story:

You get my grandparents aged 19 and 20 – very, very young – at the beginning of the war and still very young – 25, 26 – at the end of that war. So first of all they’re these very tender letters between young people who are falling more and more in love at a time when the world is really falling apart… It was a strange time to fall in love and it was a strange time to come of age, in a world where nothing was certain.

In their letters you see this trembling uncertainty that’s marked by these expressions of great tenderness and frequent outbursts of humour, and that’s what I loved about them, really. They had this great tenderness and joy, and I realised that that generation were able to endure not just because they were tough, but also because they had a kind of tenderness and a faith in each other that helped them through.

On letter writing:

You’d pour your whole heart and soul into these letters and you’d really hope that they got through. Whereas these days we’re very good at communicating but we have this very high frequency and low intensity kind of communication, which isn’t a bad thing - but I also think we’ve missed something when we stop writing a very tender and personal letter and sealing it into an envelope. And there’s that excitement when a letter arrives from someone who really means something to you. And you open it and pull out this folded paper.

It bears so much of them, their actual handwriting. Their hand formed this letter. It might even smell of their perfume or their pipe smoke. And just for that moment – 20 minutes or however long it takes you to read the thing – you’re there with them.

On his diet of war rations:

I put myself on home front rations for three months. What I discovered was not what I expected. I expected to be hungry. Actually, I wasn’t. I was able to find stuff that would have been available that I could eat.

I was really surprised by how much I didn’t want to eat some of the things that were on the ration. There were 2.5 ounces of lard, for example, which I found really hard to stomach. There were four ounces of heavy margarine… There was suet.

On the other hand there were things that were a real treat. You were allowed a little one-pound jar of jam every two months, which became an incredible treat. But you were only allowed one egg a week, which is almost nothing.

So it wasn’t so that much that I was hungry, but I was badly nourished. There was no fruit… It was possible to endure on the rations, but it was very hard to continue to feel joy. And that’s what led me, again, to a greater understanding and a greater admiration for the sense of humour that that generation maintained through the adversity.