Farewell, Shipyard Girls!

We all have certain stories, certain characters or worlds which stay with us long after we’ve turned the final page. ‘The Shipyard Girls’ may appear to the objective observer as a typical saga series (a very well-written and addictive one at that), but for me this series marked the start of my first ‘proper’ writing experience; the first time someone other than my immediate family or friends (i.e. someone not morally obliged to) told me that I wasn’t terrible at it. I was a little bit late to the SYG party, but a couple of months after binge reading the first three books on holiday, I found myself between jobs and a bit unsure of the next steps. With a decent stretch of spare time on my hands for the first time in years, I decided to start writing. On the advice of a friend who had had some success, I began by writing about things I enjoyed and so, this saga series which I couldn’t put down seemed a logical place to start. When I received an email from Nancy herself to say she really enjoyed one of my reviews and asked if I’d like to be part of the next blog tour, I couldn’t believe it – a proper, successful author liked something I’d scribbled together on my ancient laptop one rainy afternoon.

I had no idea where my writing journey was going to go, and as evidenced by my completely sporadic and random postings on this blog, I still don’t. But the main constant since I started this page has been regularly scheduled hype about the latest SYG instalments and gentle background encouragement from Nancy. Since joining the club of SYG bloggers and having the privilege of getting to know Nancy, I’ve had three more career changes (I never was able to focus on one thing for too long) and become a parent; none of which has even slightly resembled the life plan I had in mind at the time I started blogging. Which, is what made it especially poignant to be alongside the girls as they all ended this chapter of their journey in preparation for embarking upon their next unique and exciting steps.

“Life, she had learnt, was lacking in certainty, and sometimes it ended up sending you down a different route to the one you had intended or wanted to take. Sometimes…those unexpected turns in life led to something rather special.”

I’ll admit I was nervous to start ‘Three Cheers for The Shipyard Girls’, partly because, as with all of the readers who have loved this series, I didn’t want it to end but also because I was really apprehensive of a potentially rubbish ending spoiling the rest of the series. It’s strange to think that we (as readers) have these particular series and characters that we really love, which are a result of a particular author’s imagination, and yet we seem to have no faith whatsoever in their ability to take the stories where they need to go. I genuinely felt under pressure as I started to read Three Cheers, and was quite fraught about whether Nancy was going to do our girls justice; so I can only imagine the anxiety which the prospect of ending such a well loved series caused her! Of course, as always, she absolutely nailed it.

My prediction for ‘Three Cheers’ had been a final epilogue with a flash forward to the girls with their granddaughters at the 2020 VE day anniversary celebrations (obviously in a perfect universe where coronavirus didn’t exist), mainly so that I would get to find out where life took all of them but actually, the ending Nancy gave us far surpassed this. Really, the ending of ‘Three Cheers’ felt like a beginning, with all of the girls parting ways to embark on the next stage of their lives and all being exactly where they should be; their collective journey having been completed and now fragmenting into individual, enthtalling stories just waiting to be written. The imagination of the reader as to where our girls might end up after they’ve taken these next steps takes their journeys so much further than any author (even Nancy) could. Even as an avid SYG reader myself, I can’t specifically whittle down where I want each of the girls to go in life; so the possibilities being conjured up by the individual readers’ minds are boundless. Just imagine the fan fiction spin-offs we could end up with!

As sad as it is to know that I won’t have any more exciting anticipation of new SYG books, I will certainly be re-reading the previous ones from time to time to catch up with my old friends and reminisce of our adventures; and I don’t mind admitting I’m glad to have finally shed the anxiety of Helen and Dr Parker’s infuriatingly inconsistent ‘will they, won’t they?’ drama. And, it’s comforting to know that we’ve left each of our girls at the exact right place for them to embark on the next passage in their lives (including Miriam – if you know, you know) but, if the day ever does come for an on-screen dramatization then Nancy, you know where to find me. As a Mackem lass who grew up within spitting distance of Tatham Street, I can think of nobody more befitting of a cameo…

Review – ‘Above Us, the Stars’

Having grandparents or other twice-removed relations who served in the War is, for ignorant Millennials such as myself, so mundane and commonplace that it is pretty much never discussed. Reading ‘Above Us, the Stars’, recently prompted me to ask my husband what his grandparents did during the War. I’ve known this man for eleven years now, and I think this is quite possibly the only thing I don’t know about him or his family, because I’d simply never thought to ask about such a run-of-the-mill topic. Having had my historical interests tickled from reading AUTS, I waited for his response with an intrigued sense of anticipation, thinking I was about to hear some heroic anecdote which had been passed down through the generations of a family which I am now part of. However, the response which followed was somewhat of a disappointment, specifically: “f*ck knows, I know my granddad went to war though”, as we continued walking the dog and the conversation quickly moved on to what we fancied for tea. ‘Went to war’. That is the legacy of a man who most likely risked life and limb, to say nothing of his emotional and mental well-being, and entered literal mortal danger to protect his family, his country and future generations; for his whole story to be entirely forgotten within just two generations of his own offspring. Not even a glimmer of recognition as to whether he was in the Army, Navy, RAF or God knows what other role? I know it’s exceptionally difficult to talk about heroes of the Second World War without someone popping up and going ‘okay, boomer’, and much as it pains my pacifist, hippy, Millennial self to admit it, my God, we are a generation characterised by completely unapologetic ignorance.

But yes, back to the writing. As with her previous book ‘The Horsekeeper’s Daughter’ (which is also absolutely worth a read), ‘Above Us, the Stars’ takes the form of Jane Gulliford Lowes’ weird hybrid genre of non-fiction and fiction in that it reads like a fictional story but is littered with real-life accounts and factual information which helps to put the story in context and bring the characters to life. It feels a bit wrong to refer to the people in this story as ‘characters’, not least of which because (as an evening spent on Ancestry confirmed), Jack Clyde is my first cousin twice removed; thus nullifying my lifelong gripe that ‘no Clyde ever did anything remotely interesting’. As I was reading AUTS one night, my husband leaned across and uttered the question “why are you reading a book about the army? That’s not your usual tipple”, as I was squinting to focus intently on one of the more tech-y extracts which explained the types of aircraft Jack and his squadron were using and what everyone’s role was on board. I mean, I don’t even know where to start with how ridiculous that question was (disclaimer – I do love my husband, and the purpose of this post is not just to slag him off), but as I’ve said, Jane Gulliford Lowes has once again used her unique storytelling ability to breathe an exciting, fictional feel into one man’s real life story which could otherwise have easily been written off as quite ‘typical’ of his day and therefore uninteresting. Plus, even the photos on the cover make it pretty darn obvious that it’s about the RAF, not the Army, if we are going to start splitting hairs.

So, there I was, night after night, eagerly turning pages to learn more about where Jack and his family’s journey was going to go next. I will confess, I have no self control so after experiencing the anxiety of a couple of the more hairy chapters where I really wasn’t sure how his story was going to unfold, I did skip ahead to check who survives at the end. I would strongly advise against doing that, as it did take away a bit of the thrill of watching the ups and downs of this exciting journey emerge before me, however, it’s a testament to the wonderful writing of this story that I still cried at the end (and on multiple occasions throughout – I’ll never be able to hear ‘The Blaydon Races’ in the same way again). Having said that, I also wouldn’t tar AUTS with the same brush as other wartime sob-story books such as Atonement and the likes, where it’s all a bit over the top and there’s a grieving woman at home crying every night over her lost love, because the emotion of Jack’s story runs far deeper than the typical ‘he’s away from home, missing his family and sweetheart’ cliches, and the most poignant points were that Jack, and all of his mates and colleagues, were just normal young lads who were thrown into a huge responsibility which, ultimately, had them sh*t scared that they might leave in an aircraft one night and literally not come back. Sometimes, there isn’t a need to over-do a story with too many complex layers, and being able to take a fairly ‘typical’ experience shared by millions of others and render it into an emotive and epic story truly is the mark of an exceptional writer.

My own granddad (incidentally Jack Clyde’s first cousin), was born in the same year as Jack and served in the RAF at the same time, but never once spoke about it, that I can remember. I asked my parents about it once, as I think most children do when they study World War Two for the first time in primary school, and being told that he was taken off active duty to be given the grizzly job of going to the crash sites and stripping the uniforms off his dead friends so that they could be washed and re-worn by new recruits was quite grotesque enough for my seven year old self, to the point where it put me off ever asking again. But, I’m embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until I recently spent some time cramped inside a Halifax with Jack and his crew, that I really considered why that might have been the case. So, on a personal level I would just like to thank Jane Gulliford Lowes for breathing life into a story which could easily have been buried between generations like so many others have been, and I don’t think for one second that the only reason I was so moved by Jack’s story is because of the family connection I have; I really think that anyone who turns the pages of ‘Above Us, the Stars’ will have much the same emotional response, and will hopefully consider revisiting the same stories of their own families before they end up lost forever because, if this book is anything to go by, some stories are such that they just need to be told.

Image courtesy of Jane Gulliford Lowes, 2020