8 March 2016

Listening for Stories

by Margaret Whittock - my Tuesday Talk Guest.

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” (Ernest Hemingway)

Wise words from Mr Hemingway, words I wish had been familiar to the younger me. I grew up in a small market town in Northern Ireland, a town where my grandparents also lived. My paternal grandparents resided in the shadow of the church I attended, and my father, my sister and I, visited each week, on our way home from the Sunday service. My maternal grandparents lived on the edge of town, in a row of granite cottages built for workers at the mill, a mere stone’s throw away. Since our own home was close by, I saw them frequently. 

More recently, as a writer, I became obsessed with WW1, and more particularly with the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign, and the V Beach Landing, where two of my great-uncles died, one still in his teens. These facts were only revealed to me in my forties, following the chance (and spooky) discovery of the latter’s resting place in V Beach Cemetery. Back then I was living in Istanbul and visiting Gallipoli only as a stepping-stone to nearby Troy. However, fired by my discovery, I remained on the Gallipoli peninsula, indeed revisited many times, determined to learn more about my uncles and the facts behind their untimely deaths. What then turned into years of research, both historical and familial, finally resulted in my novel, Ghost of Gallipoli

There is no denying I found this process immensely satisfying. It led to meetings and interviews with family members, and strangers, who I wouldn’t normally have met or spoken to. I attended conferences and talks on Gallipoli, something I continue to do and thus, a body of new knowledge has opened up to me. In Istanbul, the British Council Library was my saviour and I spent many an hour perusing its shelves and digesting what I discovered there. However, had I just listened to the stories of my grandparents … for in those television-less days, storytelling was a regular thing at family get-togethers … I could have saved myself so much onerous work. 

Thinking back, I recall my paternal grandfather, Herbie, talking at length about ‘the war’ as it was always referred to, and about his part in it as a sixteen-year old drummer boy, leading troops into battle in North Africa. He spoke of his brother William, who fought in France, both of them in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and about his two other brothers, Sam and Jack, Privates in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and long since dead. Gallipoli would have been discussed, I’m sure, but I, first as a little girl and then a recalcitrant teenager, had decided that all this war stuff was really boring and of no relevance to me. So I chose not to listen. Had I shown an interest there would have been photographs, certificates, medals and letters to examine, documents and artifacts that were dispersed amongst family members following my grandparents’ deaths. Apart from a handful, these have long since vanished. My grandfather, I suspect, would have been only too delighted to display these artifacts and talk about them, no doubt at great length. Like most of us Irish, he was blessed with the ‘gift of the gab’, particularly after a glass or two of porter. Now it’s all too late. I’ve conjured one or two photographs and certificates from the ether, but foolishly, by choosing not to listen, I missed out on so much. 

The same is true of my paternal grandparents. My grandmother lost her first husband in WW1 and then, remarried to my grandfather, watched and waited as he went off to fight in the trenches in France. Gassed there, he suffered badly from asthma and bronchitis for the remainder of his life, dying in his seventies. Joe was my favourite grandparent and again, I recall him recounting stories of the war, and the harshness of life in the trenches. Possibly, because I was so fond of this gentle Somerset man, who grew roses and bred songbirds, I listened a little harder. But, for the most part, it went in one ear and out the other. The Reader’s Digest was delivered regularly to my grandparents and I was more interested in its “How to Increase Your Word Power” than the stories of an old soldier. 

My father participated in this story telling which often turned to tales of the Second World War, when he and his older brother departed for London to work with the Blitz Repair Squads. Fortunately for me, my father, ninety this year, is still around to tell his stories. Now, I listen avidly to every single word and prompt him to talk some more. For there is a reason I’ve moved on from World War One to a new obsession with WW2 … the opening chapters of the novel I am now writing are based on my father’s story, and his experiences in London during that time. Just turned sixteen, and too young to enlist, he and his brother faced dangers every bit as frightening as those who left to fight. By listening to my father, and following up his stories with more in-depth research, I have discovered that the Blitz Repair Squads were among the unsung heroes of their time, braving Hitler’s bombs to try to keep London’s inhabitants in their battered dwellings. Some of my father’s stories are hair-raising and I look forward to repeating them in my forthcoming novel, Billy Blitz. 

Yes, I am fortunate to be able to listen to my father’s stories. However, there is one big problem with leaving this so late. My father is old, and so, unsurprisingly, is his memory. Details and dates become muddled, facts confused. It becomes necessary to check these to ensure historical accuracy. I’ve also found this to be true of my other interviewees. One lady, also ninety years of age, has proven to be a fount of knowledge with regard to post-war Belfast, where the biggest chunk of Billy Blitz is set. This is a period and place about which very little is written, thus this lady’s stories about the artistic community there have proven invaluable. However, while they are of great interest to me as an author, and provide me with much background knowledge, her stories too are laced with inaccuracies. Again, every detail must be painstakingly checked.

What then have I learned from all this?
The following words from Nicole Krauss (The History of Love) sum it up beautifully:

“So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage,   wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves.”

For us, as writers, there are stories all around us, everywhere, every day … on the train, the bus, in the family. They are just waiting to be heard … to be told. Endora Welty writes, in One Writer’s Beginnings: 

Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories.”

We writers first need to listen … not simply hear, but as Hemingway tells us, listen completely.  And we need to listen now, before it’s too late and the tales of the past fall into the gutter like so many dead leaves. 

* * * 
Margaret Whittock is the author of three novels, Ghost of Gallipoli, Blood Sisters and Unintentional Dismount. The latter ‘horsey’ tale is aimed at younger teenagers. All are available from Amazon. Ghost and Unintentional Dismount are also available from Feed A Read. Billy Blitz will hopefully be published later this year. 

More on all above at the author’s website: http://www.darkmournepress.com

* * * 
I haven't had a chance to read Ghost of Gallipoli yet Margaret, but it is on the TBR mountain - thanks for sharing  and YES we MUST listen! I bitterly regret not listening to my amazing Grandmother - an opportunity now lost. 


  1. Splendid interview replete with wise words. I enjoyed this post!

  2. Claire, thank you for your kind comment. I just wish I'd learnt the lesson sooner. There are so many stories I must have missed … Margaret

    1. I suppose we have an advantage being authors - we have the ability to write our stories down!

  3. What a great blog - well done. I read with a sinking feeling about all the marvellous things I could have learned from my own parents and grandparents. Sigh!

  4. Thanks Camilla, we've all missed out with these things, such a shame!

  5. Thank you Camilla. I am glad you enjoyed my piece. We must now ensure we keep telling our own stories to the next generation … and what better way do so than through our writing … M


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