Julie Summers takes a little time out to update us on her writing, past and present
When I was growing up in Cheshire in the 1970s I knew more about the WI than I did about what it takes to become a writer. That said, my knowledge was not very deep. I simply knew that my grandmother, Alex Toosey, was a life-long, dyed-in-the-wool WI member and that her sister-in-law, Ruth Toosey was similarly dedicated to her WI, Barrow, near Chester. I also had a great-aunt in Winchelsea, Sussex who was member of her WI and habitually sold raffle tickets at WI events as she couldn’t walk. She told me that she would almost certainly be selling raffle tickets in heaven. All three women were outstanding flower arrangers, my great-aunt was a judge and lectured on flower arranging to WIs and other interested groups. She once told a class of all-male surgeons at Barts Hospital that the most important thing about a flower arrangement was that it should have a bosom. This was in 1973 so it was rather more risqué than it would seem today. I know exactly what she meant and when I do my flowers I always try to make sure the bigger arrangements have a proper bosom. So you see, I grew up knowing a fair amount about certain aspects of the Women’s Institute before I left home.
Becoming a writer was more of a mystery and took a strange path. In one sense I have always wanted to be a writer. I love telling stories and I find real life far more interesting and complex in its delicious detail than fiction, so I was naturally going to be drawn towards writing about real people. On the other hand, I did not realise that there was any scope for writing about real people and combining it with story-telling, so I did not have the career of ‘writer’ on my radar. After university, where I read German and History of Art, followed by a Masters in the History of Art at the Courtauld Institute, the obvious direction was into the art world. This I followed and had a very happy 20 years organising exhibitions all over the world. However, when it came to writing about art I found the language used to describe sculpture, pictures and architecture – especially modern art – a bit, well, pretentious to be honest. I was drawn to the lives of the artists and to practical questions about how they created their works. Not very scholarly but a great deal more interesting to me and, as it transpired, to the artists who I interviewed. On one occasion I asked the sculptor, Anthony Caro, where he had got the idea for the colours of his 1960s Prairie Sculptures and he replied, both to my surprise and I think his, ‘oh, it was Sheila [his wife]. She has always had an eye for colour.’ Some art historians were surprised by this but Tony simply replied that he had never told anyone because no one had ever asked him and as Sheila was a painter she had a good eye for colour. It made me realise that it was human beings and their reactions to the outside world that really excited me.
Scroll forward a decade and I finally took the plunge to give up my part-time job as Head of Exhibitions at the Ashmolean Museum and write full-time. By then I had published two books, both on explorers, and was working on the biography of my grandfather, Philip Toosey. He was the colonel who commanded the river Kwai Bridge camp during the war and was married to the flower arranging member of Hooton WI, Alex. When I finished that book my editor said it was too long and he wanted me to shorten it by losing the last two chapters. I refused, mainly because if the book had ended in 1945 my grandfather would have returned a soldier and a war hero. He would never have turned back into a man. It was the transition from Colonel Toosey to husband and father that he found the most challenging on his return after the war and, consequently, so did Alex and the children. He was saved by his work with the Far Eastern Prisoners of War. She found her safe-haven in the WI.
As some of you will know, I have been lucky enough to write a whole book about Alex Toosey’s ‘safe-haven’. And as you will also know, I found it to be more than just somewhere she could be herself. The WI came alive to me as an extraordinary body of women with energy and determination to make the world a better place. And its heart is the heart of its combined membership – a big one. My book covered all aspects of the WI’s wartime endeavours but at its centre was Sybil Norcott’s (Dunham Massey) reminder to me that the WI is not just an organisation, it is a way of life. So imagine my delight when ITV approached me in 2012 to talk about making a drama out of Jambusters, the drama that became HOME FIRES on our TV screens in 2015. The process of taking a work of non-fiction and turning it into a television drama series has been described in the new preface to the TV tie-in version of Jambusters. It was certainly exciting, at times a little scary, but it was a world away from the work I am used to doing on my non-fiction books. So while I love the opportunity I am to be given each series to read early drafts of the scripts and comment on WI and historical accuracy (don’t worry, I do check with Anne Stamper if I’m not sure of my facts), I am glad to hand them back and let the production team work their magic. The drama becomes a work of art and I feel the urge to go back to my own world of historical research and non-fiction.
Currently I am working with my brother, Tim Summers, on a recipe book. Some of you will have heard the story of Tim coming up with the marvellous title of Jambusters one evening in 2010. We had thought of A Fridge Too Far and The Scones of Navarone but those were just gimmicky. Jambusters was meaty, witty and accurate. As I have explained many times, one of the WI’s greatest contributions to the Second World War was to be the buster of bureaucratic logjams. And this they did magnificently and with tireless energy for nearly six years. The cookery book is fascinating (to me at least) because it has given me the opportunity to find answers to some of the questions that have been in the back of my mind since I began researching the 1940s. Such as: what happened to all the good cuts of meat? We only ever hear about brisket, oxtail, mince and sausages. Oh, and offal of course. I was fascinated to do more research into the pig clubs, into rabbit breeding and chicken keeping, all of which of course was undertaken by WI members along with cheese making, onion growing, herb collecting and cookery demonstrations on a wide variety of subjects. That book will appear towards the end of 2016.
I am also working on a book about the secret life of country houses during the war. These are the smaller houses use for Special Operations Executive or training schools, as maternity homes or small schools. Cheshire has rich pickings and I shall be writing the story of the soldiers from Czechoslovakia, as it was in the 1940s, who were picked up from the south of France in June 1940 and spent four happy months at a reception camp in the grounds of Cholmondeley Castle before moving on to Leamington Spa. I have research to do in Tattenhall, in Peover, in Chester itself and anywhere else that members would like to point out to me. The book is due in to the editor in February 2017 which might sound a long way away to some people but to me it is quite soon.
Generally I like to have three years to write a book: two years of research and one year of writing and editing. Jambusters took four because there was such a vast amount of material but most take three and sometimes I can write more than one book at a time, that is to say I can be conducting the research for a new book while editing the proofs of one I have already written. During the actual writing process, however, nothing is allowed to get in my way apart from my family. It is a period of great intensity and one that I find both exhilarating and horrible as the deadlines loom and my word count does not keep up with my daily expectations. I am proud to say that I have only ever delivered one manuscript after the due date but I won’t confess to you here which book that was. You will have to ask me when we next meet.
So plans are proceeding for the next series of Home Fires. Filming will start in the autumn and I expect it will reach our screens next spring or early summer. Meantime, I’m doing what I love doing most: researching and telling stories. I hope you enjoy your Cheshire and national celebrations this summer and autumn. I am sure I will see many of you over the course of the next few years.
Julie Summers, Oxford, 3 July 2015