Sue Hubbard introduces Flatlands
Sue Hubbard on writing Flatlands
Award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic Sue Hubbard introduces Flatlands – a moving tale of friendship and the beauty of nature, set in the wild landscape of the Fens during the Second World War.
In 1933 the ornithologist and wild life artist, Peter Scott, went to live in a deserted lighthouse on the mouth of the River Nene that runs into the Wash. It was in this isolated spot, full of wind and migrating birds, that he created his first bird sanctuary. In 1941, his friend the American journalist and short-story writer, Paul Gallico visited and subsequently published his children’s novella, The Snow Goose, a parable on the regenerative power of friendship, inspired by the lighthouse, which he relocated to Essex.
So how did I come to choose a children’s book, much loved by a post-war generation, as inspiration? Well, I was reading it to my grandchildren and was struck by the potential to create an adult story. I was drawn to the waterlands and wide skies of the Fens and to the characters of a young man and a girl, both outsiders, who create a bond by saving a wounded wild goose.
In Flatlands, I return the story to the remote corner of Lincolnshire where Scott’s lighthouse actually stands, to weave a narrative that examines the lives, emotions, and ethical dilemmas of my characters at the outbreak of the Second World War. In this remote, war-time landscape, with its airfields and bombers taking off for Germany, I take the bare bones of the original story and explore how Freda, a twelve year old East End evacuee, and a young Oxford student, Philip Rhayader, sent down after a crisis brought on by his pacifism and uncertain sexuality, give each other solace before being forced to face the terrible unforeseen consequences of the war that will change them forever.
Told through the eyes of Freda, now in her 80s, on the eve of celebrations to remember Dunkirk that are being celebrated in her old peoples’ home, Flatlands is a novel about memory, love and loss but a love expressed through an unlikely friendship that leads to that, now, rather unfashionable word, redemption.
Before starting the book I wanted to walk the sea wall from the lighthouse around the Wash to Kings Lynn, some 15 miles. It is so wild and lonely – with no mobile phone reception – that I took my son with me. During the whole day, we saw many birds but only three people.
During the writing, chance would have it that I met a painter at a party who turned out to be Peter Scott’s daughter, herself an ornithologist. Together we went to the lighthouse and watched from a bird hide, white swans and geese swimming in the dark. In order to understand how to manoeuvre a small boat down the River Nene and into the Wash and then on southbound towards Ramsgate to get to Dunkirk, I rang the Harbour Master at King’s Lynn, who talked me through it, suggesting a number of nautical maps on which I could plot a chart in order to avoid the sandbanks.
Research for a book like Flatlands takes one to all sorts of places. I had to watch videos on how to catch a wild goose and read about the hard life in the Fens just before and during the Second World War. I read books on farming and poaching and had to understand what it meant to be a conscientious objector and to be a young child evacuated out of the city into a remote part of the country with virtually no support or protection. I discovered the Inklings discussion group at Oxford that consisted of J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and found out, without ever going there, what the inside of the British Embassy in Paris looks like… I write organically, so my books grow bit by bit the deeper I dig into the background and times of my characters, fitting it all together like a jigsaw. The more one finds, the richer the book becomes.