Melvyn Bragg soldier novel is a gripping read

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I hadn’t read any of Melvyn Bragg’s novels until I borrowed ‘Crossing the Lines’ from a friend.

This is the third in a quartet of novels entitled ‘The Soldier’s Return.’

The soldier referred to is Sam Richardson, who, after coming back from the war, is now (1955) running a pub in the Cumbrian town of Wigton, with his wife Ellen with some help from their only son, Joe, who is the main focus of this book.

Although I haven’t read the previous two novels in the series, this didn’t seem to matter one bit, although it may help to read summaries of the previous novels before starting this one.

I suppose you could call this a ‘rites of passage’ novel.

Joe is at secondary school with ambitions to go on to university.

He is a devout Christian, interested in classical music and literature.

The novel deals with his time in the sixth form, keen on rugby and keen to impress the girls.

It is one girl in particular, Rachel, with whom he succeeds in forming a close friendship eventually leading to love.

There are nights out at the cinema, dances in Wigton and down the road in Carlisle.

Then come the A Levels and he succeeds in getting a scholarship at Wadham College, Oxford. The latter part of the novel is all about the conflict between wanting to be with his girlfriend back in Cumbria and, at the same time, wanting to experience the delights and comradeship of university life.

It’s interesting to note that Melvyn Bragg was born and went to school in Wigton and then studied at Wadham College.

I wonder how much else in the novel is paralleled by Bragg’s own upbringing. It reminded me of my university days, though mine was not such a prestigious seat of learning.

It’s an evocative and sometimes moving tale, and with a very appropriate title.

Who is Jessica Blair? The answer to that is: Bill Spence. I was watching the BBC1 nightly regional news programme “Look North” when Bill Spence was interviewed.

It appears that Jessica – or Bill – is from Yorkshire. Bill Spence has written a wide variety of books under his own name – some war experiences, 36 westerns and two war novels amongst others.

He has been writing a review column in the Yorkshire Gazette and Herald for over 40 years and has even written an illustrated history of whaling.

It was in 1992 that he began writing historical sagas under the pen name Jessica Blair. It was the idea of his publisher, Piatkus, that the sagas should be published under a female name and Jessica Blair was the name they suggested for him. So Jessica it was and he went on to write over twenty more. The latest came out last month (hence the appearance on Look North) and it’s called “Tapestry of Dreams”.

I had only a very vague idea of where Crimea was until the recent news reports featured maps of the peninsula and showed its proximity to Russia.

Then I realized that I also had only a vague idea of when the Crimean War of the 19th Century actually took place. An article in the latest issue of History Today magazine (April 2014, pp20-21) filled that gap in my knowledge (it was from 1854-6).

For those wanting more detail a possible starting point is a book (“The Crimean War”, published 2007) by the writer of the article, Hugh Small.