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Progress report for ‘Finnish Boys’

The novel set in second world war Estonia and prequel to Forest Brothers, by the way. All you hopeful teenagers will have to look on other sites for your kicks.  🙂

To give you an idea of the process; The novel is about 90% complete or at least to first draft. Once I have written that, I will give it a slow read through edit and check the continuity. The problem with producing a piece 80-90,000 words long, is that you don’t craft it all in one session. Even if you have planned out the plot with milestones along the way, you still need to check that the story flows – especially when you are writing multiple points of view.

For me, the plot needed to marry up with the timeline of actual and fictional events. It begins on the night of the Red Terror, when 10,000 arbitrarily chosen Estonians are rounded up and shipped to Siberia. (It was a dastardly event, most were women and children. The idea was to break down society and make everyone feel vulnerable and therefore compliant.) The story ends with a British agent paddles towards Estonian in a kayak, which brings you to the beginning of Forest Brothers.

The story follows Märt’s journey from baker to Forest Brother. As the story unfolded, it did not take long to bring in many other characters, including Maarja. This provides the back-story for the Estonians in ‘Forest Brothers’. It also allows me to bring to life some of the other characters who have only had cameo roles so far.

Once I am happy with my draft, I will ask my wonderful volunteers to read and comment. i also hope to be in Estonia at some point, where I can check the realities of the landscape and absorb myself in the culture. That is important for me, because I want it to feel right to people from Estonia, as well as those from outside.

Once that is done and any changes are made, I hope to submit it to the publisher. Timescales are flexible, as you still have to juggle life around it and there are many things to do away from being a writer for myself and everyone who assists me. I would love it to be ready in the second half of next year.

In honour of the fallen

As today is Armistice Day, I thought I would drop in a small essay i wrote in memory of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and their battle of Mametz Wood in the First World War. My uncle was RWF and he fell in Pascendaele, the ripples of his loss were felt in my family even when I was a boy. i hope you enjoy this and give thought for those who fell and suffered, on and off the field of battle on this of all days.

 

Men, we were, of passion and honour, courage and fear. We did what we were told and were derided for it. Yet still, we did what was asked again and more, so much more. We were boys of the valleys and boys of the town. Country boys and townies. We didn’t care, we welcomed all without prejudice, for in the end, we were a family. We looked out for ourselves; it was so natural, so obvious. Watch their back and they watch yours. Protect your own, your brothers.

  Many of us were not from the Land.  Stafford and Manchester, Oxford, the Emerald Isle, they all provided us with their sons and we embraced them like our own, for they were part of us in the end. They sang our songs, they played, they laughed and they stood proud with us. They never disgraced us, nor we them. We taught them the hwyl and they embraced it like the men they were.

Welsh, they called us and for sure we bathed in the fire of the red dragon. We sang the hymns of our forefathers and listened to the minister, fresh from chapel.  We spoke the tongue, the hiraeth burning in our hearts. The longing for our homeland was strong, but together we were stronger and we had power.

 Policemen, we were and farmers. Lawyers and dockers. Men of rugby, men of books, poets and Pals. We laughed and cried, ate and smoked together. For that was our lot. Thrown into the ruined land and told to make our people proud and that is what we did. We made sure they will never forget us and they will not. They will sing our praises for a hundred years and more. For they will know that we were men and our mettle could never be quenched.

  When the call came and we knew it was our time, we did not flinch or turn away. We sang our hymns, we said our prayers and we waited  to show our worth. the moment when we could show all the doubters what we were. Good, honest men.

  As the smoke lay across the valley and the whistles blew, we rose to a man and climbed out of our haven, to walk towards the trees. Nobody flinched and no-one turned, though the path was hard and our way was blocked. We did what we were asked again and again and again. ‘Lloyd George’s little Welsh Army’ they sneered, yet we cared not. We kept walking through the hail of bullets in the mist and we fought until we could fight no more.

 Many lived to sing in joy and return to their loved ones in the land of their birth. Many laid down to sleep, their work done. Sons and husbands, fathers and brothers, we all did our best and saw the job through until the end, until the dragon reigned over that land.

 Four thousand of our brothers gave their lives in honour and glory to lie down for evermore in those 8 days of July 1916. In Mametz Wood. Remember them

Visit to the Estonian embassy in London

Welcome to readers who have come from the link provided from the British Estonian Association (BEST), for whom I am giving a talk on November 21st in the Estonian embassy in London.

I am really looking forward to the event. I will be giving a talk on the Estonian-based novel ‘Forest Brothers’ and the writing process.  The whys and the wherefores of the story, how it came to be and what am I trying to create.

You get the opportunity to ask me questions on things I may not have covered and I will be signing copies of the novel, which I will be selling for £6 on the night.

To give you a flavour, the blurb of the novel is:

 

December 1918: The royal navy sends a squadron of ships to the fledgling Estonian nation to aid their fight for independence. When the squadron is due to depart, a young navy officer jumps ship, sacrificing his career for the love of a woman – but the navy reclaims its own. Huw Williams is dragged back to his homeland in disgrace.

Years later, the world is at war again. Huw is scratching a living on the docks when the past comes to call. He is flung into covert operations in a land caught between two armies, and a people living under threat of instant death or deportation to oblivion in Siberia. Huw soon finds out that killers are on his track. 

He joins the Forest Brothers, the partisans living secretly amongst the silver birches of Estonia. There, ghosts of his past life emerge. This is not the return to romantic dreams he had imagined. Nevertheless, an old flame rekindles, and the once embittered Huw rediscovers his desire to help save the country and the people he loves – but how can he do either, forced to live as a fugitive in the forest?

The strapline is 

A World War II drama set in a land the UK forgot

The message of which is the reflection on how the UK abandoned the Baltic States at the end of the war and our present day ignorance to this history. A dig at the Brits, perhaps. The Mail would be proud of me…

I really hope you can attend and look forward to seeing you .

Forest Brothers goes North to the Shetland Islands

My thanks to my lifelong friend, Dr Paul Brooksby, who felt inspired to donate a copy of Forest Brothers to the Shetland Bus museum in Scalloway. I don’t know what they made of it!

The Norwegian  navy were based in Shetland during the war and launched resiatnace operations to Nazi-occupied Norway. Their exploits are legendary and I was glad of the opportunity to feature them in the novel. Having sailed across the North Sea from Shetland to Bergen in a 33 ft yacht, even in summer, the journey is ‘busy’!

I am hoping to write a sequel in the future. If so, it would have to start in those magical lands. Yes, i know – Shetland… North sea meets Atlantic ocean. No trees. Windy. Brrrrr. Take it from me, the islands are a mainly unspoilt beauty, whether it be warmed by the glow of the Northern Lights in winter or basking in the dusky glow of the midnight sunset in summer.

I was best man in the Shetland wedding of the Brooksbys and I have always felt welcome there. I delivered part of my best man’s speech in Shetlandic and always felt a link with ‘da isles’To me, it’s  one of those special places that you discover as you pass along life’s journey. so many thanks, Dr B!

Finnish Boys – the next novel

Q. So what’s it about?

A. It’s a prequel to the novel ‘Forest Brothers’. It is set in 1941 during the first Soviet invasion and starts on the eve of the Red Terror, when 10,000 people were deported to Siberia. the story ends where Forest Brothers begins – on the shores of the North coast, with a lone kayak paddling to shore.

Q. Why a prequel?

A. i wanted to continue the tale and to remain an Estonian story. I felt Märt deserved to feature, to explain a lot of the back story.

Q. So, do many of the characters from Forest Brothers feature in this.

A. Many do, bar Huw Williams and Oleg. It gives me a chance to show how some characters met and how the walls were built with others. It also allows me to feature more of Estonia’s history as background to the human story

Q. Where is it set?

A. In Estonia, mainly around the centre and north coast. A slightly different part of the country from last time.

Q. Do we get to see Maarja again also

A. Yes, she’s a tough cookie, that one. Although she’s not perfect – none of them are.

Q. So, no Brits this time?

A. Yes, there is one character. A Scots maverick called Monty. It’s difficult to pin down what his game is until the end.

Q. When will it be published?

A. Whoah, slow down! I have only 33,000 words written – which is not quite half way. then I will see if CG want to look at it again. If they do, maybe it will happen sooner. I will keep you posted.

Q. Will you be using the same artwork.

A. I hope to use another Rita Roberts painting, possibly based on an image from a photo as before. I would love to use another Kalli Piht photo, her pics are superb.

Q. Are you dropping the definite article in Estonian speech?

A. Not sure yet, it was useful last time to distinguish Huw from his Estonian colleagues and mirror the way that Estonians can sometimes utilise the English language. It also took weeks to try and condition my mind to automatically ignore that they were there. it was a nightmare to take them out. I still think there’s one or two lurking within FB…

Q. Is there a trilogy brewing?

A. I have an idea for a sequel to FB. It would be based around Juhan and set in Shetland and Norway, maybe the Faroe Islands. That would be more difficult, as it no longer becomes an Estonian tale or certainly is less of one.

 

 

Kautla

Kautla is a forest. Kautla is a lake. Kautla is also a land of great serenity and great pain. I had asked to visit this place, lying south of Tallinn and just off the road to Tartu. It is part of Kõrvemaa and one of many places that combines large farming fields with dense forests.

It was a glorious Saturday, sunny and warm with a gentle breeze when we set off down the road as Estonia continues to upgrade its infrastructure. Soon the modern dual carriageway gave way to massive roadworks. The dual  to single lane and we were back on the old road, ravaged by the years of freezing and thawing. Estonia has a temperature difference of around 50 degrees between summer and winter, so you can forgive the occasional pothole.

At the town of Ardu, (a place where afficionados of Scottish liquor would cry out for a distillery to be born there,) we turned off and began the long trek down a gravel track to our destination.  I was looking for the memorial to an event in 1941. It was a place of triumph and tragedy, where the name Erna was carved into history. I wanted to see what it looked like and how it felt.

Erna was a hand-picked reconnaisance group from Estonian volunteers in the Finnish Army. They were formed to feed back information of the Soviet occupation to the Finns and the advancing German Army. Around 60 men were sent by boat or air and they set up camp in the forests near Kautla farm. Some had already made their mark at Ardu, ambushing a convoy taking a Soviet judge to the trial of people arrested for non-soviet behaviour. The convoy was destroyed, the trial shelved. I hope the accused survived, because justice at that time was shocking. On 14/6/41, only a month previously, 10,000 people were forcibly deported to Siberia overnight. Mostly women and children at that and precious few returned. It was the beginning of what is known as the Red Terror.

As news grew of the arrival of Erna, Forest Brothers and refugees flocked to Kõrvemaa. There are reports of the Estonian flag being flown at many houses as people suddenly found hope of release from the nightmare. I wonder if they found peace from the feeling of the area, as I found it that day?

We first passed the reservoir for Tallinn. It is large and calm. Forested islands form a stunning view. Dragon and damsel flies flit about in the reeds and the place is tranquil. We discover wild raspberries – always a treat in this land, and drive on down the gravel road. It’s a fairly good surface, there are occasional potholes that we need to drive carefully over, but it’s hardly enough to worry about.IMGP2078

After a while the forest peels away a bit and there is a view of Kautla lake through the trees. We park close to the marshy shore and go to look at the peaty waters. The absence of human activity is a blessing, coming from noisy, bustling Tallinn as we had done that morning. The only signs of human activity were that some yobs who have left their camp fire festooned with the tinnies of a beery night. Ignorance knows no boundaries.IMGP2084

We drive on and pass a ruined building at the roadside, overgrown by trees, Then the forest falls away to a clearing. The grass is ankle deep. There appears to be the base walls of buildings, hidden in the trees to the right. The area is naturally beautiful.

‘This is Kautla,’ my friend said. Capture 111

An old milepost is slowly being consumed by an anthill. We walk past it to a glade, where there are a lot of standing stones. The Kautla Memoriaal.IMGP2100

By all accounts in 1941, the area became a haven for refugees and forest brothers hoping for a new future for Estonia, flocking to the Erna camp. 1500-2000 people were in the forest, of which only 200 bore any arms to fight with. Their weaponry was mostly old and supplies were scarce. The German Reich had chosen not to arm these men, for fear of Estonia recovering its identity and independence, as Ukraine had done. They would have been right, and it would have cost Hitler his dream of a Greater Germany – at least for the short term.

The Soviet forces were aware of a growing presence and on 31st July, Erna became aware of an 1100 – strong Soviet force trying to encircle the enclave and destroy the camp. It beggars belief for me, that with a rampant German army breathing down their necks, the Soviets would pour such resource into this mission, but Stalin had ordered a scorched earth policy of retreat and he was a difficult man to argue with and stay alive afterwards. And perhaps they too wanted to ensure Estonia would not rise again.

Erna got wind of the convoy of troops arriving and all who could defend were sent out to meet the enemy head-on. They ran the few kilometres and managed to stop the convoy, at great cost to the enemy. They then successfully fought off the Soviets and moved back to the German lines, protecting their refugees as they went. It took four days and numerous skirmishes. There was a huge cost to the Soviet machine for this spiteful chase, and all for naught. They failed to destroy Erna and its charges.

In the glade today are various monuments to the civilians and soldiers killed in the conflict. The largest stone is to the Erna groups. Nearby are the original memorial headstones, probably made after Germany had overrun the Soviet army and then  smashed to pieces after the Soviet return. now they have been painstakingly put back together and to me form the most poignant testament to the will of the people.

We look over the ruins. This is fertile land, wild flowers of various colours grow happily in freedom all around. There are gooseberry bushes still growing next to the ruins of the house. Lingonberries also. These were farm buildings and perhaps knowing the tale, I feel a more sombre atmosphere here. especially when i am shown the granite headstone marking the grave of Johannes LindemannIMGP2104

Many escaped with Erna, but many remained with their farms. On their lands, their livelihood. If you’re a farmer, you ARE the land and it is part of you. In the Great war, there were reports of Belgian farmers carrying on with their work when they could whilst the nightmare of the Western Front went on around them. It’s what you do, carry on.

The Soviet forces, unable to catch the Erna group, wreaked its revenge on the incumbent population. The Soviets had already formed ‘Destruction Batallions’ from criminals, and fanatics. They were given a simple brief; cause destruction. Kill on the spot anyone they deemed to be acting in an anti-soviet way. A licence to do what they wanted when they wanted. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts, absolutely. They tore through the Kautla area and murdered many of those who remained.

Lindemann was a farmer at Kautla. His family and workers were burnt alive by being thrown into a trench and set on fire.

‘They were Latvian Reds’, I am told.  The Soviet secret to immunity from conscience seems to be to put strangers into the field . They had little sympathy for people of another land. I mention this fact to show the dissociation.  But no country has a monopoly in inhumanity, there are bastards everywhere. Ask the people of Cork what the British force known as the Black and Tans did to them during the Irish war of independence, still just within living memory. As a Brit, I know there is no moral high ground that any land can hold unblemished . As a human, I know that some people have no boundaries to blackening the name of their species. Besides, you always should judge people by the best of them, not the worst. I am lucky in that every Latvian I have met to date have been good folk.  Kautla felt sad, decaying flowers at the headstones, a large white cross stands in the bushes  The calm land gives out a great sorrow.

What of the fugitives in 1941? Many escaped back to the forests where they had come from, to live as Forest brothers. Sad, I am sure, that the dream had ended for now. Some of the partisans stayed to form a new Erna. They fought on Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. They helped save 2700 people on the Eestirand – a ship full of conscripted Estonian soldiers escaping besieged Tallinn, bound for Russia. The captain refused to comply with his Soviet superior and although damaged by German bombers, the ship, proudly bearing the Estonian flag, beached at Prangli island saving his compatriots from becoming Soviet cannon fodder.

Erna became a unit in the German Army. It makes a few Russian politicians label Erna as fascists. The Germans tended to form foreign units  as SS divisions. What accounts I have found from people who fought in Erna tells me they were young men wanting to free their country from being part of an empire. Some of the Erna did not stay. They had sworn allegiance to Finland, not Hitler. They crossed the Gulf  to become ‘Finnish Boys’ once again, rather than become part of the new occupiers.

The ruined buildings and the standing stones are all that is left of those turbulent times now. The Estonians would have to wait to the collapse of the Soviet Union before they could proudly call their land their own once more. Then it was a different history. Arms were linked in a human chain all the way to Lithuania. Voices were joined in song. The spirit did not die in 1941, it still lives on.

IMGP2109

 

A quick visit to Tallinn Airport library (Tallinna Lennujaam)

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.570875576308312.1073741831.154003814662159&type=1

Last Monday, I popped into Talinn Airport to donate a copy of Forest Brothers. The facebook link is above!

The idea is travellers can pick up (or donate) a copy of a book to the library as they pass through. They have set aside a nice area, surrounded by bookshelves (naturally!) and furnished with some very comfortable armchairs. It really feels like an oasis of calm and I heartily recommend it!

The article is only in Estonian, for those not blessed with the language, it talks about my idea of Wales and Estonia being similar in some ways – although one is a nation and the other believes it is a nation!

Both have a love and pride in their language, music, arts and song. Both have big noisy neighbours!

It goes on to say I am going to Saaremaa to research my next book. Not strictly true. I went to Saaremaa to find a nice quiet sandy beach and a cold, dark beer. My research is taking me to Kautla next. More later…