It’s always a pleasure hosting one of my favourite authors, Sue Barnard, who has chosen to talk about rather an unusual subject in relation to the setting of her book. Over to you, Sue!
Cemeteries may not, at first sight, be the most cheerful places on earth, but they have always held a curious fascination for me. The German word for cemetery is Friedhof, which translates literally as “place of peace” – a meaning which is very appropriate. A walk through a cemetery is a wonderful way of escaping, if only for a few minutes, from the hectic clamours of modern life. Whenever I visit a family grave, I find that even if the cemetery is only a few yards away from a busy road, the silence and the inherent peace of the place are almost tangible.
I find it particularly fascinating to imagine the people who are buried there. What sort of lives did they lead? Perhaps some clues can be derived from the diversity of the graves themselves; some (no doubt the graves of the very rich) display ornate or even ostentatious memorials. Others have little more than a simple vase – presumably all that the family could afford – and some graves are just plain grassy plots with no memorial at all.
But military cemeteries, particularly those which are the final resting places of soldiers who lost their lives in the First World War, are in a league of their own. It is impossible not to be moved by the sight of the sheer quantity of graves – and, unlike other cemeteries, all the graves are of the same basic design. I’m sure that this is intended to convey the idea that regardless of age, nationality or rank, all these poor soldiers came to the same premature and unnecessary end.
One of these cemeteries forms the setting for one of the key scenes in my second novel, Nice Girls Don’t. The main action of the story takes place in 1982, and the two main protagonists, Emily Fisher and Carl Stone, are trying to unravel a mystery surrounding Carl’s late grandfather. Their quest leads them to the battlefields of the Western Front, and eventually to a British military cemetery in north-eastern France.
Although the cemetery is not named in the book, it is a real place: Terlincthun Cemetery, in Wimille, on the northern outskirts of Boulogne-sur-Mer. I first visited Terlincthun a few years ago, whilst I was researching my own family history and searching for the grave of my great-uncle, Driver John Matthews of the Army Service Corps. I remembered being told, as a child, that Uncle Jack (as he was always known) was buried “somewhere in France”. Apparently he had survived the war, but by a cruel twist of fate he had died late in the evening of the day it ended – one of the thousands of victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic.
I was able to trace Uncle Jack’s grave by searching the records on the excellent website of
the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Whilst wandering amongst the headstones, I was staggered by the dates and ages shown on the inscriptions. Many of those who are buried here were, like Uncle Jack, not killed in action, but died – presumably of disease or wounds – during the months which followed the signing of the Armistice. And all of them died tragically young – Uncle Jack himself (whose death is recorded on his headstone as 12 November 1918) was only 25.
Sombre feelings aside, my abiding impression of Terlincthun Cemetery is its stunning location: a peaceful hillside within sight of the coast, and presided over by an imposing statue of the Emperor Napoleon. It is quite small by comparison with other military cemeteries in the area, but is smart, clean and beautifully cared-for. Despite the tragic history surrounding it, Terlincthun remains a beautiful and peaceful place.
I can’t reveal here what Emily and Carl find when they visit Terlincthun (that would give too much away), but it would be hard to find a better setting for the scene in which they finally find the answer to their quest.