I have to admit that poetry makes me nervous. I approach it with caution, afraid of revealing yet again that I just haven’t got what it takes to appreciate this sort of thing. But when Caroline Davies passed some of her poems about the Malta convoys around our writers’ group, even I could see that here was something special. I’m delighted that Cinnamon Press thought the same thing, and they’ve now published the whole collection.
CONVOY weaves together the stories of the men who risked desperate odds to get supplies through to Malta during the Second World War, and of their families back at home. It’s a vivid and moving series of accounts. But I wasn’t sure why Caroline had chosen to write it. After all, the War was history before she was born. There was only one way to find out, so I asked her.
Caroline – Even as a child I was aware that my taid (my grandfather), was involved with the supply of Malta by sea during the war. Although I didn’t know any of the details I took it for granted that everyone else must be aware of how important the defence of the island was. (Me – Malta was a vital strategic base for British forces.) I can remember being shocked that other people seemed to know about the Blitz and the Battle of Britain but not the Malta convoys. A large part of my motivation for writing this book was to reclaim that forgotten history.
Me – Are all the poems based on real events and real people, or are any of them fiction?
Caroline – In many of the poems there is a mixture. Where there is a man’s name in the heading, be it Captain Thomas Horn, or PB ‘Laddie’ Lucas, or Tom Neil then the events and the people are real but what I’ve had to imagine was how they felt about what was unfolding around them. A number of the poems are complete works of my imagination especially the ones written in a child’s voice, that of my mother. Overseas Posting is based on a single remark by one pilot about how he coped with others being posted missing so the name in that poem is fictitious.
Me – Have you had any responses from people who were involved?
Caroline – The majority of them are no longer alive to respond and those who were in their twenties during the war will now be into their nineties. There are two poems in the book which are based on an incident in Tom Neil’s Onward to Malta. He is very much alive and well and so after some hesitation I did send him the poems to read. He was utterly charming about them whilst protesting that he hadn’t done anything special during the war.
There’s more about Tom Neil on Caroline’s blog, here:
I’ve mostly had contact with people who like me, are the children or grandchildren of those involved. Paul Lazell whose Dad, Bill, was with the Royal Artillery sent me his father’s diary to read and that provided the basis for one of the found poems in the book.
Me -As someone who usually has at least 100,000 words to play with, I’m impressed by the way the poetry weaves together many stories with few words. With such a large number of ships and a complex series of events, how did you choose what to put in and what to leave out? Did you end up cutting much of what you’d written?
Caroline – I suspect I probably should have cut more than I did despite all the good advice from my main critical reader, Katy Evans-Bush. The choice of what to leave in was largely governed by deciding to follow individual men, like Roger Hill who was involved in the Operation Pedestal convoy – the attempt to get fifteen merchant ships to Malta. At one point I did have ambitions to follow the fate of every single ship but as my publisher Jan kept reminding me I wasn’t writing a comprehensive maritime history.
One of my men only has six lines in Operation Pedestal. During the editing process I decided these could be cut, only to dream that night of a seaman trying to reach a life-raft which is getting further and further away from him. Needless to say he was reinstated into the poem the next morning.
Me – Were there any stories that you’d like to have put in but which didn’t fit?
Caroline – Plenty. There were various people involved with the RAF; Group Captain Woodhall who was the fighter controller on the island and George Beurling, one of the fighter pilots who shot down twenty seven planes in fourteen days about whom there were many stories.
My focus however was on what was happened out at sea on board the ships. In this regard I would have liked to have included a incident involving Captain David MacFarlane, master of the Melbourne Star during the Pedestal convoy. She kept being left behind or in the words of her captain “we were nobody’s baby”. A merchant ship on its own without any protection from naval vessels was much more vulnerable. Every time MacFarlane steered to take position astern (i.e. behind) one of the destroyers, their hoped for escort would zigzag and pull away. Finally he is given permission to take up station on one of the warships when the Ashanti comes alongside and tells him to turn around as the main body of the convoy is astern of them. McFarlane says that he is quite happy where he is and back comes the stern reply ‘I am the Admiral’.
Me – One of the book’s strengths is the restrained nature of the language – the events are narrated with emotion but without sentimentality. Was that a deliberate choice, or does it echo the tone of the accounts you read?
Caroline – At the back of my mind whilst writing the poems was the idea that they had to sound as if the men themselves were telling the stories. In their accounts and interviews they definitely understate the dangers involved and there’s plenty of black humour. One of my critical readers did suggest that perhaps in places it was a little too impersonal and I did have to work on getting more emotion into the poems.
Me – What surprised you most during the research?
Caroline – There were two aspects that surprised me. The first was how attached I became to many of the men and of course I couldn’t have written any of it without them. The other thing was how difficult emotionally it was at times to write, especially about the Operation Pedestal convoy in which so many ships were lost. In the end the only way I got that written was to go off to North Wales for a week’s writing retreat and just make myself finish it.
Me – I’ve heard it said when people are talking about the Second World War that we have become softer nowadays, and that ‘you couldn’t get people to do that now.’ You have a foot in both camps, so to speak – do you think it’s true?
Caroline – People are still the same underneath though, aren’t they? I don’t think the current generation of young people is that different from the young men and women at the end of the 1930s and if called upon to make the kinds of sacrifices that had to be made during the war I know they would rise to the challenge.
I’m grateful to Caroline for taking the time to answer, and for agreeing to let me put up a couple of the poems on the blog. I asked for the first one especially, because I love the bleak humour.
Extract from Operation Pedestal
From a pilot on board H.M.S. Furious
Sir, why are the armourers
taking the ammo out of my Spitfire?
Looks like cigarettes they’re putting in?
Someone was worried about weight
preventing us taking off.
Fags don’t weigh much I suppose.
Indeed. Malta is short of smokes
as well as everything else.
It’ll do morale a power of good.
That’s kind of us, Sir.
I hope the Germans
and Italians don’t know.
What if they do? You couldn’t hit them
even if you had ammunition.
I would like to be able to try, Sir.
After three months of dodging the bombing
the Ajax is moored upstream
at the head of Marsa creek.
The bombs still come every day.
Her crew take shelter in the caves.
One watch on board.
She’s hit on Christmas Eve.
The bomb passes clean through her bow.
No explosion. Just bubbles of water.
The Chinese greaser first back on board.
No matter how hard he searches
he can’t find what he seeks.
No sign of the crate. Not a single feather.
A lingering rank chicken smell from the corner
where they’d been fed. Given water.
A hole in the ship’s side instead of
the New Year’s dinner. He takes it personally,
this intervention of the Luftwaffe.
On their unmarried mothers, sons and daughters
he calls down curses. Until this moment
he hadn’t fully seen the point of this war.© Caroline Davies
CONVOY is available from