Words: Richard Barber Pics: Karolina Webb
When novelist Barbara Erskine’s mother Pamela died in 1988, she took to accompanying father Nigel, a former Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot, to memorial events and aerobatic displays. “His colleagues would often ask me when I was going to write a book with the war years as the background.”
To start with, Nigel, now a sprightly 96, wasn’t very keen on the idea. “I think a lot of people who went through life-and-death experiences of the war tend to keep a lid on their memories, some of which would be too painful to talk about,” says Barbara. “But gradually, the idea of writing a book set in the Forties grew and grew in both our minds.”
Her first book, Lady of Hay, published in 1986, has sold more than three million copies worldwide, the medieval setting typical of many of her subsequent novels.
Her new novel, The Darkest Hour, was to prove quite a departure for her, although she had some expert advice close at hand – her father’s logbooks detailing, day by day, all the missions (there were more than 100 in all) on which he was involved.
“That gave me the scaffolding for the story. I read my way through the rather dry entries in the logbooks – figures, weather conditions and so on – but luckily he wrote lots and lots of letters to his parents which they kept and which I was able to read. They supplied a lot of the emotion that had no place in the logbooks.”
Nigel Rose certainly had an eventful war. “He was shot up, rather than down, on a handful of occasions. In other words, he managed to limp home to the base near Chichester without crashing to the ground.” The legacy was an armful of shrapnel. “It used to fascinate me as a child. He’d periodically scratch out little fragments of metal that would work their way to the surface of his right arm.”
The Darkest Hour is set in Sussex. Her father was in the Scots Squadron but stationed at Westhampnett, near Chichester, a satellite of the Tangmere base. Her parents met at a local squash club dance. “When Daddy had been out on a mission, he’d return to base but not before flying low over the house just outside Bognor where my mother lived, a victory roll that would let her know he’d returned safely.
“The story goes that he flew so low, the gardener had to flatten himself on the lawn, before going inside the house to announce: ‘Mr Nigel got home in one piece…’ My father shouldn’t have been doing that of course, but he was young and impetuous and in love.”
‘My father was 21 at the time, just a boy really, and yet he was dicing with death every day in the skies above the Channel’
The whole business of researching and writing the book made Barbara realise properly for the first time what her father had been through. “He was 21 at the time, just a boy really, and yet he was dicing with death every day in the skies above the Channel. It’s not surprising that he repressed so many of his memories for so long.”
In doing her research, Barbara would make a list. “Then, every evening when the gin and tonic came out, I’d sit down with my father and work through that day’s set of questions, writing down his answers in a notebook. He’s just one of only 15 Spitfire pilots still alive. But although he’s now getting a little frail, his recall is remarkable. I think he’s loved this project. He certainly didn’t miss much. In fact, when I finished the first draft of the manuscript, I got him to proof-read it. He picked me up all the time on details I’d got wrong – some aspect of the cockpit, or how the guns worked.”
And his opinion of his daughter’s finished book? Barbara laughs. “Guardedly good,” she says. “But he did admit to getting emotional for the first time when he actually read it all the way through.”
So where do Barbara’s characters come from? “Don’t ask me! Suddenly they’re as clear as if they were standing in front of me. Some writers then allow their characters to take them on a journey, but I know before I finally sit down at the computer pretty much exactly how the plot is going to unfold. My cast remain in my head for as long as it takes to write a book, but they have to have gone before I embark on a new story.”
Barbara is married to a retired City trader, Michael Hope-Lewis, who specialised in the Chinese economy. She has two grown-up sons, Adrian and Jonathan, and one grandson. “Daddy now lives in a wing of the house in Hay we’ve had for many years, but which we’ve recently had enlarged and where we now live full-time.”
She won’t ever retire, she says. “Why would I? I look up to people like PD James who were writing right up until the end. As long as I’m of sound mind, I think that could perhaps be me, too. Anyway,” she adds, “writing isn’t a choice for me. It’s a compulsion. I have to write.”
- The Darkest Hour is out now, published by HarperCollins
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