You may well have heard of crowdfunding initiative Unbound but in case you haven’t, here’s some of the books they’ve had particular success with: Letters of Note, Booker Prize longlisted The Wake and the forthcoming essay collection The Good Immigrant, partially funded by JK Rowling. They’re also very good at funding books which are less likely to find a traditional publisher but are important, covering topics that might not otherwise be written about; Alice Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, for instance. Rachael de Moravia’s book, News from the Home Front, fits into this category. How often have you read about the role of an RAF wife? No, me neither.
Having heard about de Moravia’s book on Twitter, I contributed to the funding but, because I’m nosy and couldn’t wait for it to be funded to find out more, I contacted Rachael to see if I could ask some questions about the project. Here’s my questions and her replies:
Why did you decide to write about being a military wife?
I never intended to. I’ve never mentioned the military or my connection with it in anything I’ve written. I realised years ago that there are many unfair but widely held stereotypes about military wives that have made me uncomfortable or angry or sad, so I simply stopped mentioning it to new people I met. I was also bored of being asked ‘who is your husband, and what does he do?’ because no one expects military wives to be anything other than military wives.
A few years ago I was at publishing event and was chatting to an editor from one of the big, well-respected publishing houses. We were talking for ages about literature, art, Italy, all sorts – one of those fun and fascinating conversations you remember for ages afterwards and smile when you recollect it. Then someone came along and said, ‘I see you’ve met Rachael – did you know she’s a military wife?’ and the editor I was talking with stopped, shifted about a bit, and said, ‘Really? I’m not sure I would know what to say to a military wife. Do you bake?’
Her sudden- almost violent- change in attitude really threw me, and it made me even more aware of keeping my private (military) life separate from my professional (writing) life. I was worried that these pernicious stereotypes would limit me, define me. And this is really what I wanted to explore in the book: why, in the 21st century, should a woman’s husband’s job define her; and how do you retain independence with the weight of all these years of out-dated, traditional expectations and lazy stereotypes stacked against you.
It was extraordinary when Unbound launched the crowdfunding campaign for NEWS FROM THE HOME FRONT a couple of weeks ago and Scott Pack (associate editor at Unbound) tweeted about my life as an RAF wife. I received so many messages following that tweet from people saying how shocked and surprised they were, how unexpected it was, how they had no idea I was a military wife. Defying and disrupting expectations is one of the vital things art does, so I’m glad this project has achieved this, if it achieves nothing else.
How do you sustain a career, a marriage and a family whilst coping with your husband being absent for long periods and having to move house regularly?
I’m not sure. And I certainly don’t do it very well. I’m constantly anxious, and feel guilty all the time. I don’t sleep much. I used to be organised and disciplined and did everything properly. Now I prioritise clean clothes and fresh food for the children; getting everyone to bed and to school on time; my university work and my writing. I don’t do anything else. That’s as much as I can manage. My husband currently works at a base three hours away, so during the week I’m on my own, and when he works weekend shifts or is away on an exercise or on deployment I’m on my own for weeks or months.
At the moment we live fairly close to family, which is a great help, but we have lived 500 miles away from family support. Military welfare is patchy to non-existent, and in the book I discuss the Armed Forces Covenant, which is designed to look after military families, but which (according to one local authority I spoke to about school places) ‘is completely ineffectual, not worth the paper it’s written on, and we don’t uphold it’.
I won’t go into too much detail now, but I’m fairly Knausgaard in the book when it comes to the minutiae of daily life, and the relentlessness of being a parent. It’s isolating and tiring. I’m sad most of the time because I miss Jon. He’s incredibly clever, sensible and funny, and he’s a great foil for me. I just wish we could be together more often.
I also regret that I’m not very good at keeping in touch with people. I’m thinking of writing a dedication in the front of the book, something like:
“If you wondered what I’ve been doing for the last fifteen years and why I didn’t return your call in 2001, I hope this book serves as some kind of explanation as to why I simply couldn’t.”
Simply couldn’t what? Cope with it all, I suppose.
What’s it like to live on a military base?
I reflect on this at length in the book. The dichotomy of civilian and military communities is one that I find infinitely intriguing. I’ve never understood how it feels normal to have a man with an SA-80 assault rifle standing guard 100 yards from your front door, day and night. I’m not sure it really bothers most people, but I think there’s a weird trust issue at play. For example, if you forget to switch your headlights off as you approach the gate at night, you become a potential security threat – when all you want to do is go home.
I realise it’s standard procedure, and people pass through gate guards all day, every day, but I find it fascinating. Especially the little things, like reminding friends and family to bring their passports when they visit. They can never just pop in for a cuppa on the off-chance you’re in; you have to alert security of an impending visit, arrange to meet at the main gate (preferably in office hours), and sort out ID and car passes every time. And the guns: I’d never seen a gun* before I got married, but my children are growing up seeing armed personnel every day, so it’s completely normal to them. I think that’s horrifying.
*a real, loaded, ready-to-fire gun, that is. I once covered a gun amnesty story as a reporter for a regional radio station and went to see the police haul, but they were mostly museum pieces like pearl-handled pistols and antique blunderbusses.
You’ve read letters and diaries from the wives and girlfriends of airmen in several significant wars, what did you discover?
Love comes above all else and war is hell on earth.
You’ve included discussion of work by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, amongst others, in the book, what did they bring to your own writing?
I wanted to explore how their experience of women’s lives in the 20th century compared to my own experience. I’ve come to see more clearly how their observations are still relevant today, if not more so.
For example, Septimus in Mrs Dalloway could easily be someone from my life, and I wanted to understand how I could write about a friend who had been away to the theatre of war and come back angry and unpredictable. And Plath, so preoccupied with cooking and domesticity in Ariel, uses the mid-twentieth-century housewife in the kitchen to rail against male dominated global politics and war (in this case, the Cold War). And, for example, when she says “carbon monoxide/ sweetly, sweetly I breathe in,” she’s talking about the silent killer in the home while recalling the gas of WW1 trench warfare. So this, in turn, puts me in mind of the (non-existent) WMDs in the now infamous ‘dodgy dossier’ that lead to Britain and America (and my husband) going to Iraq in 2003. The government told us chemical weapons could reach the UK in 45 minutes: the home front would be under attack and we would all ‘breathe in’. The wars and women writers I discuss span a century, but the themes, consequences, and our reactions, remain the same.
Acclaimed writer Rachel Cusk is editing the book. How did working with her come about?
The book is based on my journals, which Rachel has been reading for a few years. She generously offered to edit the manuscript when I told her I’d signed with a publisher.
Why did you decide to work with Unbounders?
I admire their entrepreneurial attitude and innovation. I like that Unbound’s sales and distribution arm is Penguin Random House. But mostly because I heard a podcast in which Unbound CEO Dan Kieran talks about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars and strange twists of fate. I was writing a pedagogical paper for my University’s Academic Development Unit, and I’d decided to frame each section with quote from Saint-Exupéry’s memoir. While I was writing it, the interview with Dan came on and because he was talking about the exact same thing I was writing about it somehow felt serendipitous.
Hmm. Now I mention it, it doesn’t sound like the best way to make a business decision. But it’s a great story.
How can people support your book?
There are different reward levels, and pledges start at £10. All patrons get their name printed in the book.
I am so grateful to those who’ve supported me. I realise not everyone interested in this book will be able to buy it, and I’m thankful for their shares, likes and retweets, and for spreading the word. It will only get published when fully funded, so I’ll need all the help I can get!
A huge thank you to Rachael for her responses and here’s hoping the book’s funded soon as it sounds fascinating, important and I’m desperate to read it. For now, I’ll have to make do with the extract below, thanks to Rachael and Unbounders.
On ceramic plates and cupcakes
There is a body in the hall. I step over it when I open the front door. I wrestle it aside so I can put little shoes – sizes five, seven and ten – in the cupboard. The corresponding feet are innocent and skip over the dead weight. I kneel beside it. It’s cold to the touch and I wonder how long it’ll be here this time.
Jon is on two days’ notice to deploy. He’s been on two days’ notice for ten days, his body armour guarding our house. It stands upright, to attention, waiting to be made flesh. My husband’s blood and breath will bring it to life. I hate it, but I examine it – I want to make it less human.
It’s made of a densely-woven metallic fabric. The layers are laminated together for strength, designed to resist stabs and slashes. It’s engineered to catch and deform bullets, to absorb their destructive energy. There are thick, contoured ceramic plates which slip into pockets positioned over vital organs; extra protection for the neck and shoulders, heart and lungs, abdomen, spine and lower back.
The ceramic plates are smooth and heavy and I try to figure out which piece goes where, like a grotesque jigsaw. Once complete, it looks enormous, too large to fit a human. I think of the statues in Florence, the colossal representations of men, and I think of Michelangelo scratching away at the marble, adding muscles and veins. This armour looks big enough for David, I decide.
I am compelled to try it on, but I struggle to lift it, so I lay it gently down and try to crawl inside. I tuck my head and arms in, and as I sit up it slides onto my shoulders. It compresses my chest so I can’t fill my lungs properly and my breathing becomes shallow. I pick up the helmet and notice that Jon has written his name and blood group in permanent ink across the front. I put it on and do up the chinstrap. I’m bulletproof, but I don’t feel safe.
I have to write this feeling, so my enhanced body and I lurch for the laptop so we can describe how we feel. Jon comes home to find me sitting at the kitchen table wearing every scrap of kit that he left in the hall, weeping over the keyboard.
“Are you going somewhere?” he asks.
The life of an RAF wife isn’t all about coffee mornings and baking cakes, but sometimes there’s just no escape. Last week I made a dozen cupcakes for a charity fundraiser at the community centre on base. My children are always eager to help in the kitchen, and between them they managed to tip half a bottle of yellow food colouring into the icing sugar. Instead of the subtle, creamy icing I anticipated, we had bright, canary yellow icing.
When I took them to the community centre and handed them over to the woman organising the cake sale, she looked at me aghast.
“They’re yellow,” she said.
“Yes, the kids did a great job helping me.”
“But we’re raising money for people with liver disease.”
“Well, hopefully someone will buy them,” I said.
“But they’re yellow,” she repeated.
I wasn’t quite sure what she meant until I looked around at all the posters of children suffering from liver disease, bright yellow from head to foot with jaundice.
By the end of the week, news of my ‘jaundice cupcakes for liver disease’ gaffe had gone all round the base. My reputation as a subversive baker spread faster than margarine at afternoon tea. I joked at Ladies Poker Night that I’ll bake anything as long as it’s not politically correct. I told them I was thinking of rebranding myself as Mary Berry’s nemesis, a baking antihero: the ultimate anti-caking agent.
To my surprise, a Brigadier’s wife from down the road asked me to make a dog poo cake for her husband. I assumed she wanted a dog poo-shaped cake made of chocolate sponge, not a dog poo in a cake. I didn’t ask her why her husband deserved a dog poo cake. I never thought I would become known for making novelty cakes. Next time we move I think I’ll keep my baking superpowers quiet. I’ll whip up a Victoria Sponge for a good cause if required, but I won’t advertise my catering skills. It’s a label I’m happy to lose. I rather hope my writing is enjoyed as much my amusing cake repertoire: I prefer writing to baking.
To fill the time between coffee-mornings and afternoon teas, I’ve been reading TS Eliot. I haven’t read the Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock for at least ten years. It’s such a different poem now; I feel the words more acutely. ‘I have measured out my life in coffee spoons’ feels so apt these days, only I seem to be measuring out my life in cupcakes.