Billingshurst author Juliet West and her second novel
PUBLISHED: 11:40 02 August 2017 | UPDATED: 11:40 02 August 2017
Jo Russell Photography
Billingshurst author Juliet West follows her well-received first novel with an epic story of star-crossed lovers - and fascists marching in Sussex. Jenny Mark-Bell finds out more
There is something about the long days of summer that recall childhood and adolescence.
Juliet West’s second novel The Faithful details the events of a crucial summer and the fallout in the succeeding years. And while the novel opens at Victoria station, it is coastal West Sussex that provides the main backdrop to the action.
In Aldwick, west of Bognor, teenage Hazel is having a languorous, listless summer. Neglected by her flighty, bohemian mother, she has little to do but watch the fighter jets’ practice runs from nearby Tangmere, and smoke covert cigarettes.
Fortunately for Hazel, diversion presents itself in the form of a visiting summer camp and the young people that come with it – particularly Tom, a reluctant attendee who is exploring the nascent stirrings of communism.
Juliet, a former journalist, was “intrigued and disturbed” when she came across a book called Blackshirts on Sea by Jeremy A Booker. The Blackshirts were acolytes of Oswald Mosley whose party, the British Union of Fascists, was at the peak of its popularity in the mid-1930s. The camps were a way of galvanising support and boosting morale.
“I was just really intrigued by that unknown history of the area that I’m from. It felt quite incongruous that there were these people in their fascist uniforms frolicking on the beaches.
“What particularly surprised me was the amount of women in the photos. As someone who’s interested in history and how we view history from our modern-day perspective, I look at that and I’m horrified: a Nazi salute in Bognor! But it was the mid-1930s – the word fascism hadn’t acquired the toxicity it has now. So what did people, particularly women, see in the movement at that time? Why were they attracted to it?”
Notwithstanding his odious racist and anti-Semitic views, Mosley was a compelling orator and political firebrand – first as a Conservative MP, before crossing the floor first as an independent member and then as a Labour candidate. He established The New Party in 1931 and later the British Union of Fascists.
Juliet was intrigued by the people who fell outside our modern stereotypes of British fascists – they weren’t all violent thugs, or aristocrats such as Mosley and his wife Diana. “What about all those thousands in between, the ordinary families?” she says. “At its peak the movement had more than 40,000 signed-up members so you can only imagine how many sympathisers there must have been as well. He was appealing to that classic soup of discontent that stemmed from the depression of the 1930s – unemployment and fear of another war.”
In The Faithful the character who represents that is Bea – a devoted mother to Hazel’s love interest, Tom.
Juliet first came upon the Blackshirts book when she was studying for her MA at the University of Chichester. At the time she was busy with her dissertation but the idea came back to her around the publication of her first novel, Before the Fall. “Publishers would ask if there was an idea for a second novel. I remembered that book and thought the seaside setting was so immediately vibrant. I didn’t really know where the novel would take off or end up but I knew I wanted to open it at one of those seaside camps.”
At its heart the novel is a love story – with Hazel’s fledgling relationship with Tom thwarted by circumstances that take years to unravel. But the story actually started with middle-aged Bea, says Juliet.
“It was partly inspired by these photos. I wanted to ask why supposedly decent people were drawn to these movements.”
The theme of motherhood is writ large, with Hazel’s liberal, laissez-faire mother Francine representing the opposite of fascist values. Bea, says Juliet, is “stiflingly devoted” to her son. “I made things a little bit complicated for the reader because Bea, who is a fascist, is quite likeable in some ways and Francine, who is a rotten mother, is great fun. I wanted to explore the grey areas that make up real life.”
Bea is also a former suffragette – representing a real political pathway taken by campaigners such as Mary Richardson, who slashed the Rokeby Venus in protest at female disenfranchisement. “That really surprised me,” says Juliet, “because for me a suffragette was a liberal hero.
“Mosley was unusual in that he did court women, offering equal pay for equal work which was quite progressive.”
Hazel and Tom find themselves at opposite ends of the political spectrum, with Tom fighting with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and Hazel turning out in the streets for Mosley. But it’s hard to totally condemn Hazel, who finds herself in a vulnerable position and throws in her lot with Lucia, a glamorous fascist fanatic. “Often extremist movements will exploit some vulnerability, whether that is economic or personal, or both,” says Juliet. “That’s very much what happens with Hazel. Lucia is very charismatic and her passion for fascism really draws Hazel in. When Lucia offers friendship and a haven, Hazel accepts it. Hazel is aware that she is having to be quite cynical and go along with Lucia to get what she needs.”
The concept for the central love story came when Juliet visited the site of the real 1935 camp in Aldwick. “I passed the Aldwick Bay Estate, which is a private estate with the most fabulous big detached houses, all in different styles. They were built in the late 1920s, early 1930s: all architect-designed, latest mod-cons, central heating and hot water on tap. I wondered what the residents would have made of this fascist camp at the back of their estate.”
For modern readers the idea of fascists on our doorstep is supremely uncomfortable. In the 1930s black and white thinking prevailed. From our own vantage point it is brave and important to explore the grey areas.
The Faithful is out now in hardback at £12.99, published by Pan Macmillan.
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