This is the transcript of an interview I gave to an on-line magazine (now closed down) about I Think I Prefer the Tinned Variety: The Diary of a Petty Officer in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II.
The interviewer asked where the title of the book came from?
The title? Well, it was originally The Diary of a Petty Officer in the Fleet Air Arm during World War II but I thought that was too boring so I asked Michael for suggestions and he said, "Look in the book and you'll find it in there waiting for you."
So that's what I did.
Norman was brought up in a coal mining village in South Yorkshire but after his initial training he was sent to an air-base in Sierra Leone, West Africa for over a year. The diary records his daily life there. On 20th January 1944 he wrote:
"The oranges' season is now well in and the crop is excellent. Pineapples are also in and I had my first the other day. They are quite juicy but rather woody. I think I prefer the tinned variety." I thought this encapsulated the complete contrast he was experiencing in his new life in West Africa. I speculate that his preference for the tinned variety was an expression of his home-sickness.
So that's how I found the title and what Michael said was true: it was right there waiting for me. I kept the original as the sub-title so readers would know what the book was about after, hopefully, being intrigued by the title.
The interviewer suggested that it must have been emotional for me to read the diary of a young man, his hopes, dreams, desires, even his fears, knowing this young man would become my father. She asked how I coped with that and if I was able to detach myself from the personal feelings and if the relationship was an asset in interpreting the diaries?
Norman never talked about his war-time experiences. Sadly he developed cancer and died when he was fifty four. I was in my late twenties at the time so I expended huge amounts of emotion many years ago. Discovering the diary and sharing it with my sisters was wonderful. We found a side to our dad that we'd never known. Thirty years after his death we were able to talk and laugh and joke about him in a way we'd never done before.
This was my inspiration and motivation to turn the diary into an ebook.
As I studied the diary I found myself constantly questioning what he meant. You know how it can be with a diary, the entries are meaningful to the author but an unintended reader has to try and piece it together. I also realised that my knowledge of WW2 was patchy and I had to do a lot of reading to try and match his experiences with the bigger picture.
I thought long and hard, and talked with my sisters, before I made the diary public. Norman hadn't written for an audience and we tried to imagine how he would feel about it and whether he would have agreed to publication if he'd still been alive. We decided that he would have been amazed by the opportunity of Internet publishing. He was an ambitious man and took advantage of the opportunities that came his way throughout life so we think he would have been pleased.
The interviewer asked what discovery had surprised me most about my father's teenage/young adult years.
Norman was a committed Christian all his life but I didn't know until I read the diary how much his faith had meant to him when he was young. I speculate that he might have gone into the church if the war hadn't intervened and sent him to the other side of the globe. In the last months of WW2 he was stationed on a tiny, tropical island in the South Pacific as part of the British Pacific Fleet. He was there when Enola Gay was dropped on Hiroshima which must have been a traumatic experience.
When I was doing the background research I discovered that before being sent out to join the British Pacific Fleet the training had included jungle survival and hand-to-hand combat. As Norman couldn't even manage to tie his hammock properly when he was on a troop ship I don't think he would have survived very long in the jungle. Fortunately, the island he was stationed on had been prepared to accommodate service personnel by the American SeaBees (the United States Navy Construction Battalion [CB]). There was even an outdoor cinema!
The interviewer commented that Norman was very much an ordinary person, living through extra-ordinary world changing events, the basis of all great literature – only Norman's story, was of course, all true. Did I think there was a particular message for readers?
The book isn't about battles or heroics. I think some readers have been disappointed by this but you know thousands of young men (and also some young women) had their lives completely turned upside-down by their war-time experiences even though they weren't on the front-line. All fighting forces need their logistics and back-up in order to succeed and I hope that readers get insights into what was going on in the background during those challenging years.
And finally she asked what emotions had I hoped to inspire in my readers?
That's a very interesting question. I didn't particularly plan for any emotional impact on the audience. I just wanted to share the diary and make it more accessible by explaining the background. I wasn't able to find much information about the West Africa part of the story so I hope my dad's diary is filling a gap in historical writing. Readers I've talked to who knew my dad have expressed surprise as they had no idea where he'd been during the war years. I hope that the book will inspire empathy towards all those who played their part in WW2 even if they weren't called on to make the ultimate sacrifice. An Amazon reviewer said: "It was like listening to my old workmates when I was a callow apprentice in the early sixties some of them had a very action packed war and some just got to go places they wouldn't have seen in their lifetimes. This reminded me of those wonderful people of a marvellous generation who will go down in history as a fantastic example of what ordinary human beings can achieve given the opportunity." I liked that a lot.
I thought these were very insightful questions to ask which gave me the opportunity to reflect on the whole Tinned Variety Project. There are some more photos from my dad's war time collection on this page of our website. And you can get a flavour of the book if you click Preview below.