A Boy and His Dog in To Die But Once

By the time you read this newsletter, the new novel featuring psychologist and investigator, Maisie Dobbs—To Die But Once—will be published. March 27th is the official publication date, though I will be at my first event in Houston on March 26th.

<i>To Die But Once</i>

As many of you know, my father's experiences as a young apprentice during the early part of the Second World War inspired me to write To Die But Once. At the age of fourteen—the normal school leaving age in those days—my father was apprenticed to a painting and decorating firm. The firm had landed a lucrative government contract to paint fire retardant on all airfields across the United Kingdom—and new airfields were being built one after the other. Poland had already been brought to its knees by an onslaught by the German Luftwaffe—indeed, Hitler had been testing the effectiveness of "Blitzkrieg" from the air during the Spanish Civil War, when he was in league with General Franco. The government knew this would be a war of the air as well as the ground. My father was living in billets as the crews moved around the country. A good deal of his time was spent in Hampshire, where much of the story is set. I have written about this in previous newsletters, though there is one part of my father's story I left out.

Joe Coombes, the young apprentice in To Die But Once has come to love being in the country, which was at first so alien to a city boy from London. He becomes friendly with a local farmer and is fascinated by the work of sheepdogs in particular, and begins to learn about them during visits to the farm.

It was in another county that my father had a similar experience, when he was billeted on a farm. Dad was a city boy whose heart was always in the country and he loved coming back to the farm when his day's work was done. It must have been such a breath of fresh air for him, after smelling nothing but the toxic fire retardant throughout the day. He learned to work sheep with dogs, going out with the farmer early in the morning before he set off for work, and again in summer evenings when he arrived back to his lodging. However, by the time my father reached the age of seventeen, he had had enough of the work—he'd had three years of being away from family. His employer cautioned him not to leave—after all, the job was "reserved" which meant it protected him from conscription because it was a protected profession working for the government. But Dad left anyway. As a gift, the farmer gave my father the two dogs he had trained—and they were Old English Sheepdogs, doing the job they had been bred for, and not looking like the breed today, which is often fluffed up! My father was worried about bringing the dogs to London, but he also knew he could take them to the big parks and allow them to run. But when he came home, it was only two days before his call-up papers arrived, and he had to report for duty.

(Note: As you can see, some farmers still use the Old English Sheepdog, though they had shorter hair and were not "groomed" for real work in the 1940's)

My father made sure the lion's share of his pay went to his mother, not only to feed the dogs, but to pay the lad my father had asked to walk the dogs every day. Sadly, it was on his first leave that he came home to discover the dogs had been sold. It broke his heart, and much as he loved his parents, I believe he never quite forgave them.

I have since come to believe that they might have had the dogs euthanized. The area where the family lived was seriously impacted by the Blitz and the subsequent nightly bombings that continued throughout the war. Many people took their pets to be put down, fearful that they would suffer a worse death if they escaped a shelter during a blitz by the Luftwaffe—or if they couldn't get them into the shelter; after all, human life came first. Rationing had impacted the availability of food, and when people are going hungry, pets come a very distant second. On the other hand, many dogs and cats were said to be even healthier during the war because they were given fish "offal" and vegetable scraps—and hardly anyone had sugary food given the rationing in effect.

Air Raid Shelter Cats

A book was recently published about the wartime phenomenon of pet euthanasia—The Great Dog and Cat Massacre by Hilda Kean tells the story of the many animals euthanized due to war. I confess, I have not read the book, mainly because I could not help but think of those dogs my father loved, and how his eyes filled with tears whenever he spoke of them. Yes, perhaps it's true that he should have left the dogs on the farm, but at the same time, he was only seventeen and loved those dogs, and he went into the army believing he had done the best for them—and he always knew he would leave London as soon as he could after the war, because he was a city boy with the country in his heart.

The Great Cat and Dog Massacre

We had more dogs over the years—Bess, the lurcher, and Lass, her daughter, who was half-collie. When I was a child, both dogs worked with my father on the local farm. There was Rex, the wanderer, and later my parents had Sam, the mastiff. My father had a magical way with animals. He could gentle even the most vicious dog, and would soon have that dog at his side as if Dad were the master.

You'll read about Joe Coombes in To Die But Once, and how he almost—almost—has his own sheepdog to train. Then tragedy intervenes.

My book tour starts this week: Houston, Scottsdale, Corte Madera, CA and San Francisco, CA. Then I'm off to the East Coast and Midwest during week commencing April 1st. You can find my events listed here.

You might also be interested in a post I wrote on the Naked Authors blog some years ago—it was about animals and war.

Hope to see you along the way on my book tour!


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