In September 1939 the British Government launched Operation Pied Piper. To protect them from the perils of German bombing raids, in three days millions of city children were evacuated – separated from their parents.
This story tells of two families: one whose children leave London and the other which takes them in. We share the ups and downs of their lives, their dramas and tragedies, their stoicism and their optimism. But. unlike many other stories and images about this time, this one unfolds mainly through the eyes of Tom, the father whose children set off, to who knew where, with just a small case and gas mask to see them on their way
When and where do you prefer to write?
I write when either the mood or the circumstances allow. If my wife is occupied on one of her activities, that seems a good time to put fingers to keyboard, for example. But I certainly don’t have a preferred time of the day. I quite fancy a writing shed, but instead I have a little set-up in a spare bedroom, which allows me to be shut away and quiet. I never set myself an amount to produce, a point to reach, a time to spend, I just write until I’ve had enough or I need to stop to prepare a meal or I’m told a meal is ready! Pre-COVID there were various other things in our lives – socialising, going out, bowls, tennis but for the last year those interruptions to writing have disappeared!
Do you need peace and quiet when you are writing?
I listen to music a lot. If I’m cooking, gardening, hoovering, the odds are I will have music on. When I get into the car it’s ignition, music. In the dim and distant past, when I was studying, it was always to a background of music So I find it slightly surprising that when I’m writing it is invariably in silence. I think I need it to be just me and the story, with no other influences.
If you had the chance to co-write a book. Whom would it be with?
If I’m to be totally honest, I don’t think I could co-write. My experience so far has been one book but that, and other pieces I have written are from inside me. Not autobiographical but from within and I can’t imagine working with another writer and having to get them on my wavelength. Now, that’s a bit arrogant isn’t it! It would be they having to get me onto theirs! Someone whom I find invariably erudite, insightful, witty and eclectic is Stephen Fry so perhaps he would be good to work with.
Say someone asks if they can use your name in a book. Would you rather be the ‘good one’ or the ‘bad one’?
I’m sure I’m supposed to say the ‘bad one’ because the baddies are always more interesting and complex, etc, etc. But, I think I have always had a need to be liked (how long have I got left on the couch, doctor!) so I would prefer to be complex and interesting but inherently nice. One of the good guys.
Who would you like/have liked to interview?
I would love to surprise here, be original, be a bit left field but every name I think of is predictable, totally unoriginal and well-worn on the interview front. But so be it.
I had the lucky chance to meet Swelelive Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson whilst on holiday in South Africa. As I sat on some steps in Cape Town, enjoying a boerewors roll, perhaps, I found myself sitting next to an impressive, besuited man with whom I struck up a conversation. I discovered he was an ANC MP representing rural villagers north of Cape Town and we talked about the journey the country was on. When he left to return to work, he explained, locals sitting beside us identified him as Nelson Mandela’s grandson. When he past as a couple of minutes later, ice-cream in hand, I stepped out and asked if him if what I
had been told was the case and, when he confirmed it, I asked if I might shake the hand of the grandson of one of the finest men to have lived. So, with six degrees of separation well and truly satisfied I would have liked to have interviewed Nelson Mandela.
Where can I find you when you are reading?
Excuse me!! Simply and most often, in two words, in bed. That’s de rigueur. It took man, many months into retirement to indulge in feet up on the sofa, mid-afternoon reading. And very much on holiday – on the plane, on the beach, by the pool. The Kindle aloud me to carry dozens of books on long, post-retirement trips, without incurring excess baggage charges.
Where can I find you when you are not writing/reading?
In normal times you might find me on the bowls green – it is NOT an old man’s game even if I’m heading distressingly towards that category; on my bike; in the kitchen, baking or cooking. Retirement affords time one didn’t have before but it’s remarkable how easily much of it gets taken up.
What goes through your mind when you hold your new book in your hands for the first time?
I confess to being inordinately and shamelessly proud when the hard copy of my book arrived. I claimed to have a book in me and I thought I might actually get to write one but I genuinely never dreamt that I would have one published, get an ISBN and a copy lodged in the British Library. I know millions have done it but it didn’t spoil the moment when I got my book in my hands. It’s right up there with the best things I’ve ever achieved.
How do you come up with a title for your book?
When I decided the time and vehicle for my story – the evacuation of children from the cities in 1939 – I knew that the plan was called Operation Pied Piper. There are a number of ironies there: in the original story children followed the Pied Piper like rats if their parents didn’t pay for his services as a rat-catcher but this scheme scattered the children in all directions; it’s possibly originally a German story and here the plan was to save the children from the Germans. Pied Piper struck me as being slightly ambiguous: it began as a working title but didn’t feel the need to change it.
How do you pick a cover for your book?
Without going into detail, a couple of circumstances combined to bring the cover for Pied Piper to fruition. I had a strong idea in my mind about the design for the cover and, by chance, I was able to offer the commission to my youngest son, who is both techy and quite artistic. I do have something of an artistic bent, having studied art at A level and long been a keen photographer, but I lacked the technical skills and the software to realise my idea. So, I described to my son what I had in my head and he produced the cover design within hours, exactly as you see it. It could not have been closer to my vision and I love it.
Thank you, Keith Stuart and The Coffee Pot Book Club
About the Author
Keith Stuart (Wadsworth) taught English for 36 years in Hertfordshire schools, the county in which he was born and has lived most of his life. Married with two sons, sport, music and, especially when he retired after sixteen years as a headteacher, travel, have been his passions. Apart from his own reading, reading and guiding students in their writing; composing assemblies; writing reports, discussion and analysis papers, left him with a declared intention to write a book. Pied Piper is ‘it’. Starting life as a warm-up exercise at the Creative Writing Class he joined in Letchworth, it grew into this debut novel.