Frank White’s new novel is set in the north of England during the Second World War and is being published 53 years after he wrote his last one. Chris Bond talked to him.
Last year the boss of publishing firm Hodder & Stoughton received a brown paper parcel neatly tied up with string.
Inside it contained a manuscript and a handwritten note that read: “I am a Hodder author. I am hoping you will consider my new novel.”
Both were written by Frank White and later this week There Was A Time, the story he posted to Hodder, is being published – 53 years after his last novel came out.
White, 90, was worried that his generation was fading away and that their stories were being lost, so he wanted to capture his memories of that period. “I wanted to remember those great days because I think in many ways they were great,” he says.
“The British Army had been driven out of France, the nation was surrounded on three sides by the enemy and was totally alone and into the bargain people were expecting an invasion any day. So it’s an important chapter in this country’s history and one I wanted to write about.”
White’s novel is set in a fictional English village on the Lincolnshire coast during a six month period starting in June 1940 as Britain readied itself for the grim prospect of invasion and the onslaught of the Blitz.
The book captures the anxieties, heightened emotion and community spirit that marked this epoch-defining chapter in the nation’s long and colourful history.
White himself was 13 at the time and vividly remembers living through those momentous and difficult days. He believes the wartime experiences brought people closer together and defined the character of those who lived through them. “Those years made my generation what it is, or what it was as it’s fading away now. That period left its mark in the way we behave, the way we talk and our politics,” he says.
White grew up in Manchester and witnessed the impact of the Blitz at close quarters. “I remember getting strafed by a low-flying Heinkel on its way to bomb a factory where they made aircraft just up the road from where we lived.”
The plane was part of a Luftwaffe raid. “It was flying very low over the city, it was like the crew were using the street signs of Manchester to navigate,” he says.
“It was during a holiday and I was on the allotment with my father. We were planting some strawberries and we heard this noise and my father, who’d been in the First World War, knew straight away that it was machine gunfire so we took cover in the greenhouse.
“It flew at barely rooftop height with its machine guns rattling away at nothing in particular and then we heard some bombs drop very shortly afterwards, though I don’t think they did a great deal of damage. Then they turned back for home. We heard later that they were shot down somewhere over the Pennines as they were inevitably going to be.”
It wasn’t the only close encounter he had with the Luftwaffe. “Some time later we had a bomb that landed over the back gardens, so we had quite an experience during the war.”
His father was one of ‘The Old Contemptibles, survivors of the regular British Army during the First World War, and White remembers breaking the news to him that the country was once again at war. “The day war broke out I was in the local church singing Latin hymns and I went to see him on his allotment shortly afterwards. He’d not heard the news and when I told him that we were at war again he just broke down in tears.”
But while older generations shuddered at the prospect of another war, for White and his peers it was more of an adventure. “To us youngsters it was all rather exciting. We weren’t that worried, or scared, it was just how things were and you got on with it. You got used to the tension.”
It’s something he attempted to capture in his book. “I remembered the mood at the time and I was able to transfer this into my novel. I’ve lived in a village for 25 years and it’s what I know and it seemed a good idea to set the story in a place like this. So I invented a village on the coast and used that as the backdrop to what was happening.”
White himself joined the fray after volunteering for the wartime Royal Navy “at the earliest opportunity”. He served in the British Pacific Fleet and was on board a ship in the Indian Ocean when the war finally ended in August 1945. “The Japanese went on fighting in various locations even after the nation had capitulated and I was there with the fleet when they signed their capitulation in Singapore in September.”
He remained in the Far East for the next 18 months before being demobbed. By this time he’d had his first short story published in the Sydney Sun. “Many in my generation went away for a long time and we got used to the idea of writing letters to friends and family and I found myself enjoying scribbling and that’s how I get into it.”
White returned home to England where he married and started a family. He lived and worked in Yorkshire for many years, spending a dozen years as a publicity manager for a firm based in Bradford before embarking on a career change when he took over the tenancy of the Waggon and Horses pub in Oxspring, in South Yorkshire.
He already had a couple of novels under his belt and during this period he wrote several plays, though he considered writing more of a hobby than a career.
In 2013 he decided to write a new novel, penning There Was A Time in the space of just three months during that summer. When he finished the book he put it aside and initially didn’t plan to do anything with it.
It was only after his wife badgered him that he finally sent it off last year to a publisher. “It was my wife June who went out and came back with some paper and string and said, ‘Get it sent off’, so I did.”
He admits he was pleasantly surprised that they wanted to publish it. “They’d done my earlier book but that was more than 50 years ago. They didn’t know me and I didn’t know anyone there, either. So I was rather surprised because you don’t expect that to happen at my age, but I’m very pleased that they took it on.”
He believes the wartime years were a defining moment in Britain’s history. “They were very important times for this country. There was a tremendous sense of cohesion in those days, people were all in the same boat and they cared for each other.
“There were hard times but there was great stoicism and there was an attitude amongst people that ‘we’re going to see this through.’ It was a wonderful nation,” he says. “What I aimed to do was capture the feeling of those times and to remind people of what the country went through.”
There Was A Time, by Frank White, is published by Hodder & Stoughton. It is out on June 29, priced £16.99.