The latest novel by Alison MacLeod, professor of contemporary fiction at the University of Chichester, will be BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime, starting serialisation on March 31 (to April 11).
And on April 3, it will be released in paperback – the latest landmark moment for a work which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.
A compelling novel of love and prejudice, Unexploded, which includes Chichester’s wartime bishop George Bell among its characters, centres on Brighton at a very specific and disquieting time in history. On Park Crescent, Geoffrey and Evelyn Beaumont and their eight-year-old son, Philip, anxiously await news of the expected enemy landing on the beaches of Brighton.
“Really, I was looking at May 1940, just as the little boats were coming back from Dunkirk, through to June 1941,” Alison explains. “That year was a strange time as Brighton, as was the whole coast, was waiting for the enemy to walk up the beach. Because we know now that the physical invasion did not come, in hindsight we have forgotten the particular story of that year when people were expecting it to happen.
“I found it quite fascinating to go back and develop a keen and fresh sense of what it must have been like along the coast. There were not just rumours. Everyone was saying the invasion was imminent and Brighton was going to be a major landing place.
“There were various dates given when people were saying the Germans would land. There were strong bulletins saying June 2, and then everyone was saying it would be July 15. And then August 2. And it went on right through the year. Everyone said the Germans were going to land at Christmas. The whole town was braced for that threat that permeated everyone for a year, that threat that was always on the horizon but at the same time ever-present. That surreal year of tension really interested me.
“There was a broadcast out of Germany by Lord Haw Haw. Lord Haw Haw announced that Hitler would make the Royal Pavilion in Brighton his HQ in England. In the book, I have two boys, who get it into their heads that Hitler is going to take over the Royal Pavilion. These two boys become obsessed with the notion.”
Alison came across real-life precedent for such an obsession – a group of boys who made Hitler the focus for their games. Every Saturday, a different one would become Hitler for the day – all part of that strangest of years. There was also the tale of the Dutch foreign minister who arrived in Brighton and walked up the beach. Everyone believed he was a German spy.
Also in the mix was a lecture which Virginia Woolf gave in Brighton – featured in Alison’s novel – in which she spoke of literature and the war.
“I spent about a year in various archives before I began to write. I spent lots of time at the Imperial War Museum. I went to their sound archives. I went to the Brighton Museum archives. I also zoomed in on particular Brighton diarists and their little notations, people saying things like ‘I went out Christmas shopping, and everyone was afraid of the Germans landing.’ You get the fear and you get the rumours, that everybody would be subject to biological experiments and that British men would be sterilised.”
And it is against this background that Alison looks at a marriage unravelling...