The ‘treasure’ on my kitchen table
Immersing yourself in the psyche of a teenage seaman adrift on a lifeboat, his ship sunk by torpedoes, would challenge any novelist, but debutante author Sara Allerton has managed it. She tells Steven Russell about her tale of fear, camaraderie, survival and love . . . and the burnt suppers that allowed it to be written
THE CD of wartime memories came in the post at just the wrong time – not that Brian Clarke would have known that when he set it on its journey from Lancashire to Suffolk. Recipient Sara Allerton was – still is – a busy mother of three school-age children and the summer holidays were upon her. With spare time in short supply, the disc from a long-time family friend sat on the kitchen table through August, “with me thinking ‘Oh, I should really listen to that,’ but not able to commit to it at all,” she confesses. “When the kids went back to school I put it on one morning while I was peeling potatoes or something.” What Sara heard that autumn morning in 2008 had her imagination working overtime. Brian was a merchant seaman just 19 years old when the SS Sithonia sailed for Montevideo in the summer of 1942 as part of an Atlantic convoy. She carried more than 8,000 tons of coal. On the night of July 12 the Sithonia was struck amidships by torpedoes from a German submarine. The vessel sunk about 350 miles west of the Canary Islands.
Survivors endured purgatory, floating in two lifeboats for weeks. Needless to say, the “voyages” were terrible experiences. One boat managed to reach Las Palmas, on Gran Canaria; the other landed in Senegal, where the crew was incarcerated.
Sara realised she was listening to powerful stuff – the basis of a cracking novel if fictionalised elements could be woven around the core of Brian’s overwhelming experience. So it was that she embarked on an intense 18 months, writing a book based on the episode.
“It all started ‘popping’ in my mind and I suddenly thought ‘Maybe I could . . . what if I did . . .’ – and then I got really excited about it and was sorry I’d left it sitting there so long!” Sara explains. “Once it started going round in my head, I couldn’t stop it. I’ve been a bit obsessive about it. So nothing else got done!”
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Like what? “Housework . . . and the children had some bedtime stories rather shorter and quicker than they’d probably have liked. But they’ve been very supportive and proud. I’d tend to put supper on and then write something on the back of an envelope and forget about the burning food. ‘Never mind; scrape it off . . . !’”
Brian, now 86, considers himself utterly blessed to have survived the destruction of the Sithonia, those perilous days dying of thirst on a decaying lifeboat, malaria, life as a prisoner of war and the harsh desert. He’d wanted to tell his story and had started putting down recollections on paper. But it hadn’t proved easy.
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“Mired as I was in dilemmas about contradictory and patchy memories, and about which parts of my wartime story might be best left alone – for the sake of my sanity, of decency, and of the families of my fellow crew members who did not make it home – my efforts to write a memoir ended up as a kind of mishmash, with flashes of the extraordinary buried within reams of the mundane . . .” he explains. “As far as I was concerned, my miserable attempts would languish in some drawer.”
He approached a Glasgow publisher who found elements of the journal riveting, “but my gifts with the pen and recall of what she regarded as the crucial details – What was it really like on the lifeboat? – sadly not up to the task.” Brian needed someone with the gift of vivid storytelling to bring to life the “‘interesting bits’ of my long, dry sequence of events” and gently soothe his “reluctance to revisit the raw terror, the descent into near-madness or the endless tedium of my days on the doomed ship’s lifeboat and in prison camp”.
Which is where serendipity helped. Sara, who lives in Wickham Market, had entered the Ip-art short story competition in 2008 and come mightily close to winning. Her father was an old friend of Brian and showed him the tale on the theme of migration. Aha! Here was a wordsmith who could help bring his terrible wartime experiences to a wider audience and highlight the risks taken by Merchant Navy sailors in keeping the Atlantic supply lines open. Which is how that audio CD of Brian’s memories came to be resting on the kitchen table.
Sara, he says, “fell upon the idea of making a novel out of it with unbridled enthusiasm”. Even better, the Glasgow publisher liked what it was seeing once Sara got to work. Liked it a lot, in fact: enough to make the resultant novel its first fictional offering among its catalogue of books on subjects such as art, architecture and history.
Making Shore is something of a hybrid. The story is inspired by that 1942 torpedoing of the Sithonia, but the characters – including Brian Clarke’s namesake – are fictional.
“The facts are true, and some of the sequences,” the author explains. “The flying fish episode, for instance, did happen. There are sequences of events that I followed from his experience. But all the characters are made up. I suppose it’s like The Great Escape: you know something like that happened, but the relationships and dialogue within it are heavily fictionalised.”
Sara drew up long lists of questions, posted them off to Brian’s home at Lytham St Annes or read them out to him, and then held long phone conversations in which she gathered information for the story. Growing up, she and her brothers and sisters were aware he’d had some kind of dreadful wartime experience, but they didn’t know the details. Was it difficult having to grill someone she’d known since she was a girl? Was it uncomfortable asking an octogenarian to relive painful moments – something she had to do, as a author, if she wanted the emotional material that would grip readers?
“I was often quite nervous when ringing, though he is a very good public speaker and a very personable, outgoing man. He was always very honest. There’s a bit in the book where he has to unblock his bowels, and I was very nervous about asking him about that. He’d mentioned it to me, once, as a kind of one-line ‘Oh, I had the opposite problem’ [to diarrhoea], but to try to picture it, and convey it . . .
“When I was a child, you were imbued with respect for older people, so you didn’t pry. So to have to ask him questions such as ‘What was the language like?’, to even contemplate asking ‘Did you use the word F----?’, left me quite abashed. But he was supremely generous about talking.”
Some issues were very hard to broach – such as wanting to know exactly how people died on the lifeboat. ‘He would say a few things, but it’s quite something to ask somebody to go back to those pictures in their head. But you need the human angle. So it can be quite nerve-racking.”
That said, Sara found the whole experience more thrilling than emotionally draining.
“I was just completely over-excited about it!” she laughs. “Although I’d be nervous, it was nervous energy, I think. I’d get on the phone to Brian for a couple of hours and then it would suddenly be three o’clock” – time to leave for the school pick-up – “and I’d think ‘Damn, damn, damn!’
“So I think I was probably keenly energetic about it all; though, to everybody else here, probably irritatingly so!”
The biggest challenge with a project like this, which can easily dominate an author’s every waking moment, is not having enough time.
The pattern of Sara’s life for about 18 months was: get home from taking the children to school and then write and/or talk to Brian until 3pm. With just a quick break for lunch? Well, often that went by the by. “You sit down and, if you’re loving it, you don’t even look up. And then suddenly it’s two o’clock before you think ‘Oh, actually, I’m quite hungry . . .’
“I would stop at 3pm and have to leave it. Put the kids to bed and start again at, maybe, nine or 10pm and work until midnight; sometimes later – maybe a quarter to one. Not really late into the night, because I’m not very good at that time!
“Sometimes I’d be doing other things, like the shopping, and I’d be thinking about the story. I think I must often have appeared quite rude, because I sometimes felt so ‘in my head’. I remember a friend saying ‘You look really cross; what’s the matter with you?’ But I was just so not thinking about what I was meant to be doing. My mind was on my writing.”
English graduate Sara, 40, was no stranger to writing, though a 260-page novel was something new and ambitious.
“I remember producing very maudlin and romantic poetry when I was a teenager,” she grins. “I’ve started various novels and then thought, after about three weeks of intensive writing, ‘What a load of rubbish . . . No-one’s going to want to read that!’”
Then that 2008 Ip-art short story competition proved a spur. One of her daughters, tempted to enter the children’s contest, brought home from school a photocopied leaflet about it. Her mum read about the adult category. “I thought ‘Five-hundred words on the theme of migration is not much . . . I could do that . . . It’s only about an A4 sheet.’”
The middle child of three boys and two girls, Sara grew up in rural Yorkshire. Father John Willcox, who played rugby for England and captained the side several times, taught rugby and French at Ampleforth College. She studied English, history and French at A-level and then spent eight months in Australia, helping out at a school in Adelaide.
Back in Britain and it was off to Oxford. “Just having to sit and read books was fantastic; and I’d had two excellent A-level English teachers who were really inspiring. We did Othello and Henry IV Part II and I remember being absolutely blown away.” At college she was obsessed by Henry James, and is also a fan of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and F Scott Fitzgerald.
Sara and a brother went to Aberdeen, working as hospital cleaners by day and bar staff by night, to earn money to take a course on teaching English as a foreign language. She taught in Worcester for a while, had a year in Spain, then worked at a private school in London, followed by one in Worcester.
At Oxford she’d met Toby, who hails from Suffolk. They’d stayed in touch after graduating and he’d got a job back in the county. Friends initially, the pair later became an item, got married, and Sara moved to Suffolk in 1997. She’s still a Yorkshire girl at heart, but loves the sea and the softness of the Suffolk landscape.
She’s nervous now her first novel is out. “Writing’s quite internal. It’s all very well sitting in your quiet room, writing privately, but having a book involves ‘letting out’ quite a lot of yourself, doesn’t it?”
Sara’s just landed a part-time job, and is conscious the summer holidays are again on the horizon, so she’s not making firm plans about future literary projects. Fragments of possible themes and plots have been swimming around in her head for years. But there’s nothing concrete.
“We’ll see how that one goes,” she says, nodding at a copy of Making Shore. “What if no-one buys it? I’d probably never show anybody anything again!”
n Making Shore is published by Saraband Books (www.saraband.net) at �9.99.