Gerard Woodward's latest novel Vanishing moves from the Soho underworld to London's 1930s art scene, from El Alamein to a rural community with fascist ties. It follows the life of Kenneth Brill, a man whose artistic vision is so piercing he has trouble seeing what is right in front of him. We asked Gerard a few questions about the origins of the novel and the ideas it confronts.
Your main character, Kenneth Brill, is an officer in the camouflage corps; I gather his career owes a debt to the real-life exploits of Geoffrey Barkas. Until I read Vanishing I was unaware of the importance of camoufleurs in WWII. How did you discover Barkas and could you give readers some examples of the kind of thing the real camoufleurs got up to?
My interest in camouflage goes all the way back to a visit to the museum of the Royal Engineers in Chatham, Kent, in the early 1990s, which had a small display devoted to the work of the camouflage artists of both world wars. Among the displays were some landscape paintings done by the artists, using camouflage paints, in their spare time. I was fascinated by the way the paintings seemed in some ways to utilize the principles of camouflage, being constructed from the same muted palette range, and appearing to blend all the components of their landscapes together, so that nothing ‘stood out’ too much. In the end these thoughts were put into a poem called ‘The Camoufleurs’, which appeared in my third collection, Island to Island.
Then, a few years later, I came across the diaries of the British artist Keith Vaughan, in which he describes an episode where he was arrested for painting a landscape during the early days of World War II. Unwittingly he’d painted a landscape which incorporated a tank trap, and he was detained on suspicion of being an enemy agent.
I decided to write about this as the starting point for a novel and it seemed natural to make my character, Kenneth Brill, a camouflage artist during the war. When I began doing some more in-depth research, I came across Geoffrey Barkas’s memoirs in Manchester’s Central Library. All the main camouflage operations described in Vanishing are based on real-life operations, perhaps with some minor variations and additions here and there for aesthetic reasons: the dummy railhead, shadow-houses, and of course the dummy tank regiment which played such a crucial role in fooling the enemy before the battle of El Alamein were all described by Barkas. One of the hardest things to understand was how the camoufleurs managed to build six miles of dummy railway track using empty petrol cans as rails, but then it is easy to forget the sheer scale of operations in the desert at that time – the British alone lost over 200,000 men. Barkas also described the ad hoc nature of camouflage at that time, how there was little in the way of established knowledge or practice, and how he, and just a few other men, were responsible for re-establishing it at the heart of military operations.
When we first meet Kenneth, he’s been arrested for painting the landscape near his childhood home. He’s desperate to capture the scene because the government have just sanctioned plans that will force his family to leave the area. The irrevocably changed landscape is based on a real one – Heathrow, London. Can you describe what happened there and explain why you wanted to incorporate this real event into your novel?
I have long been fascinated by the story of Heathrow and how the village, or hamlet rather, that bore that name has vanished to make way for the airport. There are very few places that, in modern times, can disappear so completely, and leave no trace whatsoever. But Heathrow has been removed so thoroughly that even if you dug down beneath the airport you would find nothing – no foundations, no graves, no buried hoard, because the topsoil was removed to a depth of ten feet in places. It is a place that provides us with no archaeology. The more I read about the old Heathrow the more saddened I became for the families that had lived there for generations, and who had been removed at such short notice and with such meagre and mean-spirited compensation.
An Ordnance Survey map of Heathrow village as it was before World War Two
This sadness was compounded by the fact that the whole operation stemmed from an act of governmental duplicity, a misappropriation of wartime powers which allowed the government to seize the land and construct the airport while circumventing normal planning procedures. The pretext was that the airport was to be a military airport, whose long runways were necessary for the larger planes needed to carry on the war in the Far East. In fact this was never the intention. The air minister at the time, Lord Balfour, a civil-aviation enthusiast, bragged in his memoirs that he had lied to the cabinet about this matter, and the intention had always been to construct a civil airport at Heathrow. Environmental considerations – the proximity of urban areas and the prime agricultural value of the land – were swept aside, and apparently the decision to build the airport at Heathrow was taken in a meeting that lasted forty minutes. Scant regard was given to the fate of the population. As the Middlesex Advertiser and Gazette put it, ‘It is as though a foreign power had conquered the land and were turning out its inhabitants.’ In thinking about Kenneth Brill, it seemed fitting that he should come from somewhere that no longer exists.
An Ordnance Survey map of Heathrow airport in 1948
Vanishing is about hiding and revealing, changing and discarding. Can you tell us something about what was hidden and revealed, and changed and discarded, during the novel’s creation and its journey to publication?
Gosh – so many things have changed. My first attempt at the novel began with Kenneth Brill as an old man dying of cancer in 1979, thinking back over his life as he takes an overdose that will end his physical suffering. This early draft made much of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which is what sets him off thinking about the war.
My father is hidden somewhere in the novel, because it was he who painted pandas on the bonnets and sides of military vehicles in the war. He was also conscripted to go to North Africa but couldn’t go because he couldn’t drive. He was very disappointed, because all his friends were going. They nearly all died, however, and my father would almost certainly have died along with them. And then this novel would have never got written!
Lots of things were revealed in the novel, most often Kenneth Brill’s body, because in an early draft I gave him a disrobing disorder, which meant he unconsciously lost his clothes at certain key moments. Kenneth has a fraught relationship with the human – particularly male – body, which is expressed in perhaps more subtle ways now.
What was discarded – episodes with a psychiatrist, and the village of Tring, which was Kenneth’s original home before I came upon the idea of Heathrow.
Read chapter one of Vanishing