When I was doing research for my 2007 novel Journeys to the End of the World one of my reference books was The South African Forces in France by John Buchan (Thomas Nelson and Sons 1920). Buchan was a man of many parts – army officer, Governor-General of Canada, and the author of numerous novels, including the bestselling The Thirty-Nine Steps which was later made into a Hitchcock movie.
For many years I had wanted to write a novel set in World War I, largely because my late father had served with distinction in the South African Heavy Artillery on the Western Front. As a child I often asked him about the war; although he had experienced and seen a great deal, these were things that he could not bear to talk about. So apart from a few humorous anecdotes, I learnt nothing about the Great War from him, and had to rely on books. One of these was The South African Forces in France – a solid history with detailed descriptions, lists and maps, but hardly a riveting read. To research more personal views of the conflict I consulted I Was There, an extraordinary four-volume illustrated history of the Great War published in the 1930s by the Waverley Book Company, with each chapter written in the first person by someone who had been there.
An aspect of World War I that interested me particularly was ‘shell shock’, and while I was still mulling this over in my mind I happened to be reading some South African history in which I came across a remark by the missionary Dr John Philip about the behaviour of certain Khoi people (then known as Hottentots) during the Hottentot Rebellion of 1799. The symptoms he described sounded similar to those of World War I ‘shell shock’. Then I noticed a newspaper article about post-traumatic stress disorder among present-day victims of crime, and suddenly I saw a link between South Africans of 1799, 1914 and the present time.
Isaiah Berlin said: ‘Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is possible only because what makes people human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them.’ I saw post-traumatic stress as a common factor, and from that grew the plot and characters of Journeys to the End of the World.
Journeys was published as a paperback in 2007 and by now most copies have been sold. To make it available again in this centenary year of the beginning of World War I, instead of reprinting it was published for the first time as an eBook.
You are invited to find it via any of the following links: