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Author interviews

William Nicholson: The writing of Motherland (part 1)

February 16, 2013

It began with two disconnected stories that I’ve known for many years…

The first belonged to Sussex, where I grew up as a child in the 1950s. We lived in Seaford, a short walk from a coast still littered with anti-invasion defences, and from the Downs, where lay the weed-covered remains of concrete airstrips.

The Second World War was all round me. We played games in abandoned pillboxes, and read the shilling ‘trash mags’ that told picture stories of wartime exploits by Allied soldiers.

And just up the coast was Newhaven, the grubby port from which the daily ferry sailed to Dieppe in France. My father took me to Dieppe on a day trip once, my first ever sight of another country.

Later I learned of something called the Dieppe Raid – a wartime exploit that had not featured in the trash mags, because it had been a failure.

The more I learned about it, the more surprised I was that it was so little known.

Here was the first attempt to mount a test invasion of France, in 1942, deploying a massive combined force of army, navy and air power, the biggest until the actual invasion two years later.

It resulted in the death or capture of three thousand men, most of them Canadians; and it remained a footnote to history.

For a while I thought I’d write a film about it, and devised a plot in which the survivors returned many years later to the Sussex villages in which they’d been billeted, and the ghosts of their dead comrades came marching home.

That idea, like so many of mine, got filed away in an ever-growing pile called Story Ideas.

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