A new book evokes memories of the 1939-45 conflict through the eyes of a 10-year-old in Sheffield. Ian Soutar finds out why.
A CHILD’S eye view of Sheffield during the Second World War is evoked vividly in a newly published novel, Young Ravens by Celia Boyd.
It is a picture of ration books, air raid shelters, ITMA, kali and liquorice root from the corner shop, not to mention more enduring aspects such as Middlewood Road and the Sheffield Telegraph.
This is the world that 10-year-old Sheila Raven must get to know when she and her younger brother Fred are brought to the city to live with their grandparents following their soldier father’s unexpected return from Africa to find their mother entertaining a work colleague called “Uncle Henry”.
Sheila gradually adjusts to her strange surroundings and a new school, eventually making new friends including a German prisoner-of-war, something that creates tension when her father returns from Italy at the end of the conflict in 1945.
Like Sheila Raven in the story, Celia Boyd spent her early years in Derby before moving to Sheffield, though she was slightly younger aged seven and the war was virtually over.
“My father was the first blind graduate of Sheffield University,” she recalls. “My mother typed up his degree papers. Afterwards he got a job at the old blind school on Manchester Road and my mother and myself joined him in 1945. So that was my introduction to Sheffield.”
The family lived on Westbourne Road in Broomhill and her father, Edward Kaulfuss, later earned a reputation as a poet.
“Both my parents were culturally inclined and got involved in an education settlement near the old Infirmary at which there were several prisoners of war who were allowed out of their camp at Lodge Moor.”
The hostility to all Germans and anyone with a foreign-sounding name was one of the motivations for writing the book.
“There was an awful lot of rather vicious attitudes towards innocent people,” she says. “It seemed unfair we allowed this to happen. So the starting point for the book was an interest in reconciliation and a feeling of irritation that I kept getting because of the assumption that if they were German they must be evil. So many young German soldiers had no part in that side. I felt I had something to say about reconciliation and about girls’ education.”
Boyd went to Hunter’s Bar Primary School and on to High Storrs, then a grammar school, after the 11 Plus.
The junior school that Sheila goes to, Netherwood, is fictional, she says. “However, the head, Miss Lucas, is based on Miss Buckland at Hunter’s Bar who was completely round and had long feet shod in highly-polished brown shoes.
“Anyone reading the book will know that Uplands, the secondary school, is High Storrs. It was a hotbed of women’s liberation in those days, I don’t think the world was ready for it. There were some magnificent teachers there then.
“The building was divided between the girls and boys side who were kept separate. But there was a 20-minute period where you could go to the area called The Roughs and have some contact with the boys. I left Sheffield at 18 to go to university and never came back.”
She went to study English at Birmingham but rather than writing her ambitions lay in acting and she got to perform at the Edinburgh Festival. After qualifying as a teacher she taught drama at Worcester College of Education and it was around this time that she wrote Young Ravens but it has remained unpublished until now.
Her first published works were non-fiction, an academic piece on children’s fiction in the Georgian era and then, after a career change, working for the West Midlands Probation Services, Are You Here For The Beer? A cutting edge work dealing with the rehabilitation of prisoners serving sentences for crimes linked to alcohol abuse, it won the prestigious Butler Trust Award.
It was after she took early retirement at the age of 60 she was able to devote serious time to writing. “I went to live in Hay-on-Wye where everything seemed to be about books,” she laughs.
She has since become known as the author of a successful series of historical novels about the adventures of Tom Fletcher, a young Worcester surgeon, during the turbulent times of the English Civil Wars. Now living in the Cheltenham area, she is currently working on the fourth book Tom Fletcher adventure
“In the meantime my publishers, Graficas Books, asked if I had anything else written and I showed them Young Ravens and they liked it. It’s lovely that it is finally reaching an audience.”
While the book is suitable for readers of 10 upwards, many adults have enjoyed its evocation of wartime Britain. Young readers have apparently identified with Sheila’s experience as an outsider. “Some girls who have read it have said to me, I thought it was happening to me. There can be no better compliment.”
Young Ravens, with illustrations by artist and graphic designer Tom Allwright, is published by Graficas Books in paperback and as an ebook.