The Key to Flambards was inspired by K M Peyton’s wonderful quartet, set in the early 20th Century, which takes heroine Christina from the age of twelve to her mid-twenties, through the First World War and on to life beyond. If you haven’t read the series (Flambards, The Edge of the Cloud, Flambards in Summer and Flambards Divided) you have a marvellous treat waiting! The first three books were also dramatised by Yorkshire Television. Kathy Peyton, who has become a good friend, kindly gave me permission to draw on her setting and characters for my own story, which is set in the present day. My main character, Grace, is the great-great-granddaughter of Christina, and my story begins when she visits Flambards for the first time in July 2018.
The Flambards series is rich in detail: rural life and the seasons, social injustice and change, the First World War and its demands on both combatants and civilians, the early days of flying, love, loss, loyalty, change and continuity. On this page I'll look at some of the elements I've picked up in my own story.
I didn't read the Flambards books as a child - they hadn't been published then, but I'd have loved them. I first came across them in my twenties, while training to be an English teacher. It had been my ambition to be a writer since the age of eight, and I'd been experimenting with poetry, short stories and fiction but without any clear sense of purpose. After reading K M Peyton (and other pioneers in the field of young adult fiction such as Aidan Chambers, Robert Cormier and Jean Ure) I felt that this was where my efforts should be directed, and a few years later my first novel, Run with the Hare, was published. So I can say that I owe my publishing career at least partly to Kathy Peyton.
Two years ago, when the idea for the book first came to me, I was supposed to be starting a different novel. I was idly thinking about the various sequels and prequels to classic children's books (Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean; Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders; various continuations of The Wind in the Willows ) and wondering what I'd choose, give the chance. Flambards, of course! But there was no question of following on from book four, Flambards Divided - Christina, by the end of that story, is now in her twenties, and has been widowed, divorced and is about to marry for the third time. Instead I wondered what Flambards would be like now. Not wanting it to belong to rich country landowners, I decided that it's now owned by a Trust, and is a residential centre for various kinds of courses on art, photography, wildlife, local history and suchlike.
More about how I came to know Kathy, and what she thought of my idea, in my next post.
For several years I reviewed regularly for Books for Keeps magazine, and wangled for myself the job of interviewing Kathy for the Authorgraph feature. I visited her at home, and felt I'd been transported into one of her stories - she lived (and still does) in a large cottage on the edge of a village on an estuary in Essex. There's a pond with ducks and moorhens, a wood planted by Kathy herself, and that first time there were horses in a paddock visible from the back door. We sat and talked in the study where Kathy writes her books, which at that time she shared with her husband Mike, a writer and artist.
Having loved her books, especially the Flambards quartet, since my twenties, this felt slightly unreal, but Kathy was very friendly and welcoming. From then on we've been friends, often meeting in London at publishers' parties as well as at her home. I've already dedicated one of my young adult novels, The Damage Done, to Kathy: "for Kathy Peyton, who made me want to try".
We had often talked about Flambards and its characters, and at one point - many years ago now - Kathy was thinking of writing a novel about the son of Christina and Mark, who would have been of age to fly Spitfires in the Battle of Britain. By the time I thought of my idea Kathy no longer wanted to continue with her Flambards characters, having gone on to other projects. (I did mention that son in my story, in passing, but he isn't the focus of attention. In fact I wanted him out of the way, which wasn't difficult under those circumstances.)
Of course I needed Kathy's permission to use her characters and setting in my own story. Although I knew by then that she didn't want to continue herself, I felt quite anxious about asking - it seemed such a cheek! But Kathy agreed immediately, which was very kind of her. She also told me an idea she had about Mark, to which my first reaction was that I couldn't possibly use it ... but later I changed my mind about that and saw a way to work it in.
Now all I had to do was write my novel! One which would draw enough on Kathy's wonderful characters to be satisfying to its many fans, while standing alone as a story rewarding in its own right for those readers who haven't read the originals. Hmm.
Readers of the original books will know that there's a lot of emphasis on fox-hunting, which Christina loves - she takes to riding immediately and continues riding to hounds to the end of the final book. It's a way for her to demonstrate courage and daring at a time when girls had limited opportunities for physical exertion, and K M Peyton writes so supremely well about horses and riding that it's easy to be caught up in the excitement. But times have moved on, and that's reflected in my story.
I don't merely dislike hunting for sport - I detest it, and am a long-standing member of the League Against Cruel Sports. It would be unthinkable for a novel to be published in 2018 in which the heroine takes eagerly to fox-hunting, and in any case my story takes place in the summer, when there's no hunting activity. But I did want Grace to learn to ride; it's one of the ways in which her experiences echo Christina's, and has extra significance to her because of her disability. (More about that below.) From meeting Charlie, owner of a sweet-natured pony called Plum, she does hear about hunting and its support from the horsey community - there's a brief conversation in the seventh chapter. And I'm sure there will be difficulties ahead for Grace, when autumn comes and Charlie and her horse SIrius go trail-hunting. (The deliberate hunting of foxes with packs of hounds is now illegal; hunts are supposed to follow a trail. Nevertheless, there are regular reports of foxes killed "accidentally", and campaigners such as myself are pressing for a complete ban.)
I wanted the natural world to be important in my story, but from the point of view of someone who loves watching and protecting wild creatures rather than killing them. That person is Jamie, whose hero is Chris Packham and who introduces Grace to the pleasures of watching otters, kingfishers, bats and swifts. This is a revelation to city-dwelling Grace. Soon she shares Jamie's enthusiasm, and is caught up in his fear that Flambards and its land are under threat from developers - one of the strands of the novel. What will be the future of Flambards?
The 1914-18 war becomes increasingly important as the Flambards quartet progresses. Even in the first volume there are hints - Dick, when he loses his job at Flambards, joing the army, his only choice when he's unfairly sacked without a reference. By the end of The Edge of the Cloud, in August 1914, war has broken out, and Christina's new husband Will is one of the first to join the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot. Flambards in Summer sees Christina return to Flambards to rescue it from devastation, and through this book and the final one we see the difficulties of wartime privations for farmers (and everyone else), while through Christina's close friend Dorothy, a hospital Matron, we learn something of the dreadful injuries and losses. Will is shot down; both Mark and Dick are left with lasting injuries, and Flambards Divided introduces a new character who will become important to Christina: Fergus Ashley-Clarke, a pilot and acquaintance of Will, who's been left with terrible facial injuries. Although none of the stories takes us to the front line, we're in no doubt about the effects of war on both combatants and civilians.
The Key to Flambards is set one hundred years after the Armistice - i.e. now. Roger Clarke, the Flambards manager and great-grandson of Fergus, is researching the wartime history of house and village in preparation for a Remembrance Day commemoration, and through him Grace and her mother both contribute details from their own family history and learn more from locals. There are startling revelations ... and Grace finds her own links with these damaged characters.
I felt that it was important to include someone with present-day experience of war alongside those of the earlier generation, which is why Marcus' father, Adrian, is ex-Army, deeply troubled and disturbed but unwilling to accept help.
One of my favourite episodes in the book is where Marcus and Jamie tell Grace about the 'ghost soldiers' they saw in London on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. This - part of the 14-18 NOW commemorations - was such a clever, direct and poignant way of remembering the terrible losses of 1st July 2016 and the days and weeks that followed. See more about it here.
I wanted the two boys to place themselves in the position of those young soldiers. 'Would you fight?' ... 'Back then I would have. Like all the others. Because no one knew.' And Marcus remembers that in English at school they were told about the poet Edward Thomas (Marcus can't remember his name) who, when asked what he was fighting for, picked up a handful of soil and said, 'Literally, for this.' They would have fought for Flambards. And Grace? Had she been older, she'd have been a nurse, like Dorothy, or maybe a Land Girl or a driver. She would certainly have been involved.
I didn't begin with the idea of having a disabled main character – my starting point was to wonder what Flambards, the house, would be like in 2018 and who might live there. (I decided to make it a residential centre for arts, crafts, photography, etc., after having been sold several times since the Peyton novels.) I did know that Grace, my main character – great-great-granddaughter of Christina in the Flambards quartet – would arrive there for the first time, just as Christina does in the first book. Christina was an orphan, having lost both parents in a shipwreck, and I wanted Grace similarly to have gone through a recent, life-changing experience.
So - a year before the story begins, when Grace was thirteen, she was hit by a car, as a result of which her right leg has been amputated below the knee. I saw this as a way to link her to characters in the Flambards quartet who are damaged in various ways: Will breaks his leg in a riding accident and it sets badly; Fergus in Flambards Divided, a First World War pilot, sustains terrible facial disfigurement; Mark survives the war but with lasting, painful injuries. These three come into my story as Grace and others look into family history to mark the centenary of the Armistice, and she feels a particular empathy for them as well as a realisation that she isn’t unique. At present-day Flambards, too, Marcus’s ex-Army father has been damaged in a different way. Characters cope – or don’t cope – with their difficulties in a variety of ways.
Also, I wanted Grace to follow Christina in learning to ride but I emphatically don't want this to be seen as a pony book. For Grace, learning to ride a pony called Plum is an important step towards becoming mobile and independent. On a pony she can ride at speed and forget her disability.
While writing the book I interviewed various specialists, one of whom spoke about the London Olympics and Paralympics of 2012 and the significant rise in awareness of disabilities of various kinds. During the Games, and since, we've got used to seeing prosthetic limbs worn by high-achieving athletes. Grace in my story has always been fit and active, a runner, and losing her leg is of course a devastating blow; but by the end she has a specialised athletic limb and is able to run again. Two of the amputees I interviewed told me that they don’t think of themselves as disabled; prosthetic limbs are so effective now. In fact, I’d known one of them for several years without realising that she was an amputee.
For Grace, at first, losing a limb feels like losing herself. She has a huge adjustment to make, to her view of herself and to others. I wanted to explore her bitterness, frustration and sense of injustice, and how she reacts to others and they to her; but also I wanted her to find capability and purpose and to make new, lasting friendships alongside the bond she already has with best friend Marie-Louise.
I didn’t want it to be seen as a book about disability, or to be flagged as such; rather, a novel in which the main character happens to be disabled. I hope that while readers are engaged with her story, they will be Grace.
"... A terrific book, which succeeds in capturing with great subtlety and nuance K.M. Peyton’s strong sense of the past and effortlessly combining it with an entirely modern and contemporary story of young people today." Victor Watson, editor of THE CAMBRIDGE GUIDE TO CHILDREN'S BOOKS IN ENGLISH
"Poignant, thoughtful ... Newbery's teenagers feel somewhat old-fashioned, but her sensitive portrayal of grief and recovery is superlative." Imogen Russell Williams, The Guardian
"It's a rare author who can successfully re-enter a world created by another and make of it something entirely fresh yet true to its inspiration. The book really is a delight through and through ... a perfect introduction to the work of two genuinely outstanding writers for young people." Lydia Syson, author of MR PEACOCK'S POSSESSIONS
"It's vintage Newbery - intelligent, immersive and intriguing - and as well as sending readers towards Flambards I hope it wins new fans for her own impressive back catalogue." Sheena Wilkinson, author of STAR BY STAR, in ARMADILLO review magazine