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Discovery of soldier’s Great War journal leads to novel idea

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An acclaimed Swansea author, known for her ‘spooky’ content, has been inspired from beyond the grave to write her new novel.

Rebecca F John, who saw her debut novel, The Haunting of Henry Twist, shortlisted for a Costa First Novel Award in 2017, has her great, great uncle to thank for providing the inspiration for The Empty Greatcoat.

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Set during the First World War the muse arrived in the form of a journal, written by her late forebear, Francis House, detailing his army service, including his participation in the bloody Gallipoli campaign.

Explaining how she came into possession of the unique writing, Rebecca said: “The journal was written at some point not long after the war, and I became aware of it as a teenager when my aunty found it amongst a load of tat in the attic.

“My family aren’t big readers, but I immediately wanted to pick it up and devour it. I read it and reread it.

“It’s a handwritten journal that amounts to around 10,000 words in total, which charts his time from joining the army at 15, in 1907, and follows through until the point he gets sent home, just before the end of the war, with pleurisy, meets a woman, gets married and has a son. That’s the end of his journey.”

Rebecca, who grew up in Pwll, near Llanelli, and is now based in Swansea, has remained faithful to the journal’s narrative with a few embellishments to make the novel’s plot flow smoothly.

She said: “For the most part, the novel is the story of what happened to him, it’s nigh on all true.

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“It’s almost entirely set on Anzac Cove and begins with Francis having followed his friend, Berto, to Gallipoli because he has done him wrong and wants to apologise to him. That’s the pretence of him moving from Malta, where he is doing his training – the army wanted Francis to remain in a training role, but he was insistent on going into an active role.

“From there it’s about the fighting and what’s going on with him internally. He’s trying to find his way into manhood. He’s very young, 23.”

The journal offers a fascinating insight into the dangers of life on the frontline.

The journal discovered by Rebecca

One extract describes his first night in the fox hole he took weeks to dig.

It took weeks to complete my dug-out. The first night I slept in it I awoke thinking someone had touched me. Having no matches and not getting a reply I went to sleep again. In the morning on getting up I found a Turk bullet by my side under the blanket. A search discovered it had penetrated my blanket and touched me.

Like so many soldiers, Francis shied away from writing about the true horrors of war.

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Rebecca said: “I had this story, which Francis had obviously written down, but as I saw with old neighbours of mine, who had fought in the Second World War, they would talk about it up to a point and then brush over what we would think of as the important parts.

“That’s what Francis does, he goes all the way up to this point where he talks about landing on the beach at Gallipoli, and coming through the shallows, and then he gives you a rushed page of everything that happens there, and then he’s on to the next thing.

“I know that he was really dosed with opium because of the pleurisy, which allowed me to bring in the speculative element. How confused would he be? How much would he be living within his own mind at that point?”

This provided the perfect opportunity for Rebecca to utilise her skills.

“I would describe my writing as historical and speculative, and spooky to an extent. I always find myself writing on the cusp of reality, that place where our real, external, physical life meets our imaginary life.”

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It is apparent that Francis wrote the journal for his son, and it was that thirst for an audience which reached out and struck a chord with his great, great niece, Rebecca.

She said: “There’s a point, about halfway through, where he casually writes, ‘I trust my reader to believe.’

“That made me want to tell his story, because that journal had been sitting without readers and he obviously wanted it to be read. I thought, ‘perhaps I can provide him with that.’ That was the moment I realised I had found the basis for my next novel.”

Rebecca’s Great, Great Uncle Francis – the inspiration for her novel

In keeping with the unexplained, Rebecca, despite her undoubted research skills, has been unable to find out anything about Francis and his son that isn’t mentioned in the journal.

She said: “I don’t know anything beyond the point at the end where he says, ‘I’m now the father of a fine son, Michael Francis, whom I hope, after hearing how his father tried, will say ‘I, too, will try’ and in doing so gain just reward in success and happiness.’

“That’s how he signs the journal off – and I couldn’t find any sign of his son or what happened to them afterwards.

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“I thought I would be able to trace them through censuses, but I couldn’t find anything at all, which in some ways is probably a good thing because I wasn’t forcing reality into the end of the novel.

“They were all so far away from me – Francis was born in the 1890s – so everyone is long gone. All I have is a couple of photographs and a couple of birth certificates, there’s nothing else for me to go on.

“My great grandmother Lily, who was Francis’s sister, was English and she moved to Swansea. The fact that the journal must have been in her possession before it ended up in my possession makes me suspect that there was no one left of Francis’s side of the family.”

There was a certain amount of pressure and responsibility to get the telling of such a personal story correct, as Rebecca admits.

“I really made a mess of writing this novel a few times – I tried to write it different ways. Initially I set it over decades and tried to bring all the family into it but that didn’t work. I tried various things, but I don’t usually write that way. I usually have my structure set.

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“That was the pressure – wanting to do a good job for the sake of somebody who actually lived it. I say in a note at the end of the novel that I hope that I have done it justice. I hope he would be happy with it.”

When it came to publishing, the Swansea University MA Creative Writing graduate could have relied upon her growing literary reputation – stories from her debut collection of short stories, Clown’s Shoes, won the Pen International New Voices Award and were shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award – to find a major publisher but she chose a different route for this particular novel and published it through her own newly-set-up independent publishing house, Aderyn Press.

The 35-year-old said: “I could have tried to sell it, but as it’s really personal, I felt it was a good one to publish through my own publishing house.

“There are a huge number of talented writers and great books out there that just don’t fit the mould of big publishing. To me, they needed somewhere to go. That’s why I set up Aderyn.

“I’ve got four books lined up already without even opening submissions. I haven’t been able to because there have been so many manuscripts to read just from people who I have been in contact with over the years through writing events, festivals, and social media. And they are all absolutely brilliant. I’m honoured that they are willing to bring their stories to me.”

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The Empty Greatcoat (Published by Aderyn Press) is out now.

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