Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Visiting history by guest author Tom Palmer

As well as looking at pictures and photographs, interviewing people, going to museums, watching films, YouTube, historical documentaries, reading book after book to do my research, I also like to go to the place where the book is set.

In the case of Resist that place is Velp.

Velp is small village that has become part of the city of Arnhem in the west of the Netherlands. It is calm and friendly, picturesque and lovely. There are a lot of people on bicycles and gardens with flowers and nice little shops and cafes. You wouldn’t think that one of the most dramatic battles of the Second World War took place on its streets, with ordinary people hiding in the cellars to avoid tanks and bombs and aeroplanes, smoke and fire and blasts and worse.

And, to be honest, it is very hard to imagine war when you visit Velp nearly eighty years later. For research purposes there might not seem much point. But – if you can – it really is worth visiting a place where you are setting a story.

I realised that when I arrived to find myself in Velp railway station.

I was here. In the village where the whole of my historical novel, Resist, is set. Metres from where the book starts at the level crossing where my main character is forced to stop and be searched by a German soldier.

How did I feel?

Thrilled. Excited. Giddy. But I’d learned absolutely nothing new. Not yet.

Not until I found the building that stands where my hero character used to live. Here was my first lesson.

There’s a statue of a girl in the middle of a garden of rosebushes half way up on the main road running north out of Velp.

The girl is in a ballet pose. She looks about fourteen. There is no sense that she was to become one of the most famous film stars who ever lived. But she did. This is a statue of Audrey Hepburn, star of Breakfast at Tiffany's and My Fair Lady.

Standing in front of her statue when I visited Velp was big for me. It reminded me that my book was about Audrey Hepburn, the girl. Resist ends when she is fifteen, looking as she looked in this statue. The statue is in front of the building that has been built where she lived with her mother and grandfather.

That was what the story should be about. A girl who lived in a warzone, who did astonishingly brave things to help frustrate the Nazi occupiers of her home village. A very scared girl who has lost family members in the war and fears she will lose more.

Not about one of the most famous women the world has ever known.

Next, I walked up the road to the edge of the village. I wanted to explore the woods. Probably the most dangerous thing Audrey Hepburn did during the war was to go into the woods, search for a shot down Allied airman and take him food and water and clothes so that he could escape to safety and not be caught by the Nazis.

The woods will look very different today. Perhaps all of the original trees have gone. The Dutch needed to cut down trees in the winter of 1944 to 1945 to burn because the Germans had taken all their coal and other fuels.

That struck me when I was sat in the woods. Imagine if you ran out of fuel this winter. I am sorry to say that many will. How cold would you have to be to go into the woods and chop branches off the trees to keep your family warm, to keep your family alive?

This revelation, for me, is what made me understand that it was good I visited Velp.

I spent hours walking the streets of Velp. From Audrey’s house to the woods. From the hospital where she volunteered to the village centre. From the station to other places she had been to. I imagined in my head that I was Audrey going here and there. How she’d feel. What she’d do. So that when it came to writing the book I had her village mapped out in my head. I had some new ideas from seeing her statue and the station and the woods.

And it taught me that, although the events that Resist is based on were eighty years ago and, although the buildings and trees could all be new and different, history and its echoes is still there if you take the trouble to walk the streets.

Watch Tom's Time Tunnellers YouTube video here

Tom Palmer


Tom Palmer is the author of 57 children’s books, mostly historical or sports based. He has won the FCBG Children’s Book Award and the Ruth Rendell Award for Services to Literacy and has been nominate for the Carnegie three times. He lives in Yorkshire with his wife and daughter.


TWITTER       @tompalmerauthor


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