Foyle’s War

The novel I’m writing now is set (mostly) in wartime England, so when I heard of this television series, I thought I should take a quick look at it. It sounded a bit dull and worthy, to tell the truth, and I only checked it out because I thought it might be useful for research purposes (footage of Spitfires and so on). Well! I was completely hooked by the end of the first episode. I love it, and I can’t recommend it too highly.

Foyle's War

Foyle’s War is the story of a police officer, Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle. When war is declared, he decides he wants to do something useful for the War Office, but his superiors insist he remain in his coastal town of Hastings and solve local crimes. This, of course, he does very well. He always manages to track down the criminal, but justice isn’t always done, which is one of the things I like about this series. It’s realistic about the compromises that occur during wartime. Foyle, however, is consistently honest and ethical. He’s also a caring (if undemonstrative) father, and some of my favourite scenes involve his relationship with his son Andrew, an RAF fighter pilot. They rarely hug and they never say ‘I love you’, but the bond between them is clear and strong. Foyle is also a loyal, understanding boss, acting as a sort of father figure to his messed-up sergeant, Paul Milner, and their driver, Samantha Stewart.

I like all the characters, but Sam is my favourite. Thankfully, she’s more than the token female love interest. She does have a brief (mostly off-screen, and not very convincing) romance with Andrew, but right from the first episode, she’s an important member of Foyle’s team. She knocks out a fleeing criminal with the lid of a rubbish bin, and then, when she and Foyle are caught in a bombing raid, gets straight up, brushes herself off and starts administering first aid to the other victims. She wages a relentless battle against men who think women ought to be at home ‘knitting balaclavas for His Majesty’s forces’, but she does it with good humour and good sense. It’s also terrific to see a woman on screen who loves to eat.  (Seriously, I am so sick of fictional girls and women who never seem to consume anything but coffee.) Sam’s relatives, most of whom are vicars, are great, too, especially the uncle who makes his own (undrinkable) wine.

Each episode is a separate, ninety-minute story centred around a crime that involves some aspect of the war, ranging from the internment of ‘enemy aliens’ to Britain’s botched attempts at biological warfare. The crimes can sometimes be a bit contrived and Agatha Christie-ish, but the historical background is carefully researched and a lot of effort seems to have gone into making the sets and costumes as realistic as possible. A shop that’s on screen for less than a minute is filled with authentic 1940s props, for example, and those are real Spitfires taking off from Andrew’s air base. There are a few, very tiny, historical errors, but they haven’t dented my enjoyment of this series (in fact, they make me feel clever for spotting them, so I have a sneaking suspicion the writer put them in on purpose). I haven’t seen the final, seventh series, but I’m looking forward to that. There’s also talk of a spin-off series, set after the war. I’d love to see Foyle paired up (professionally, that is) with Hilda Pearce, the scarily efficient intelligence officer who runs into Foyle several times during the war. They could set up their own private detective agency! And Sam could work for them!

If you enjoy police dramas, or are interested in the Second World War, or just want to watch a lot of terrific British actors, I highly recommend Foyle’s War.

How I Learned To Hate Poetry

I didn’t always hate poetry. When I was little, I loved Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and the verse of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. I liked these poems because they were short, and funny, and made each word ‘do a lot of work’, as Humpty Dumpty observed. They had clever rhymes, and their rhythm had me stomping round the house, singing the words in my head. Poems back then were playful and witty and exuberant.

Then I started high school.

I don’t really blame the teachers. They had a syllabus to get through and a lot of bored, unruly students to control. But my English teachers turned poetry into something to be killed and dissected, rather than experienced and loved. (They tried to do this to novels, too, but novels are simply too large and robust to be damaged by this treatment, and in any case, I was reading enough novels outside class to counteract any ill effects.) It wasn’t just that I hated writing essays about poems. It was the type of poems we had to read. They were all written by men, mostly dead white men, and were usually about subjects I had no interest in. For instance: in my senior year of high school, we had to read something by Les Murray about beans (truly), and something by Philip Larkin about Whitsun (whatever that is). We also studied The Canterbury Tales, which weren’t even written in English. Worst of all, there was John Keats and his morbid, mawkish odes about dead knights and old vases. I walked out of my final English exam vowing I’d never read any poetry, ever again.

I kept my vow, mostly. There are a lot of things other than poetry to read, and I was busy devouring novels and short stories and non-fiction. I did read a few verse novels, by people like Dorothy Porter and David Levithan. I liked them, but I couldn’t help feeling that writers that good would have been better off writing proper novels, with punctuation.

Then I started writing my own novel, A Brief History of Montmaray, and realised almost at once that my narrator, Sophie, loved poetry. It was an essential part of her character, I could see that. Great. Now I’d have to start reading the blasted stuff again.

Well, here’s what I discovered. I still hated Keats, and I didn’t much like Tennyson, either. Reading Idylls of the King was like wading through treacle. I decided I preferred T. S. Eliot when he was writing about cats. But there were some pleasant surprises, too. For a Romantic, Shelley wasn’t too bad at all. I’d only ever thought of Kipling as one of those dusty Victorians with irritating views about India, but I loved The Bell Buoy. I found I absolutely adored W. H. Auden. And I’ve now ‘discovered’ (not really; I’m sure anyone with a degree in English Literature knows all about him) a wonderful eighteenth century poet I’m hugging to myself for the moment. A fragment of one of his poems is going into a pivotal scene of the third Montmaray novel, and I can’t wait to write that scene.

Note that all these poets are dead white men. I read these particular poets because that’s what Sophie and her friend Rupert were reading. In the 1930s. But apparently women wrote poetry, too, even back in the olden days. I haven’t got to them, yet. I may actually end up reading some for pleasure. You never know.