Published: 06:00, 13 February 2021
A secret wartime visit by Winston Churchill to Kent, making friends with Romany gypsies and days spent in the idyllic countryside in the Weald are among the stories recounted by bestselling author Jacqueline Winspear in her memoir.
The author of the hugely popular Maisie Dobbs novels, who grew up in the Cranbrook area in the 1950s and 60s, conjures up images of an idyllic childhood, despite relative poverty - including living in a caravan in her very early days.
Now living in California, the bestselling author published her memoir This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, a few months ago, after taking three years to write it - but she first began it 25 years ago.
"I wrote a first draft of my memoir over 25 years ago, and then abandoned it - I realized I wasn’t really ready to write it," she said.
"The stories weren’t forming as I wanted them to - they were rather like a cake that doesn’t come out of the oven quite like the photos in the recipe book. In the meantime, some of the stories found their way into published personal essays, and on a blog that I used to contribute to. I started it again from scratch about three years ago."
Jacqueline's parents moved to the county from London, settling near Goudhurst and first living in a caravan, and later on a farm, which today has been expanded to be a fairly grand country home.
She said: "I sometimes drive past the cottage when I return to Kent, though now it is a much larger country house, having years ago been remodelled together with the neighbouring dwelling. It has a posher name too, though to me it will always be Brown House."
As a child, she lived two miles outside Cranbrook, which she thought of as a "metropolis."
Her memories range from collecting wild strawberries and Kentish cobnuts, remembering the days when "only official people went into a house by the front door" to buying a Cinderella watch in a shop in Week Street in Maidstone on a family day trip on the bus.
She also recalled going to Sunday School at Hawkhurst Baptish Church, studying A levels at Cranbrook Grammar and busy shopping days in Cranbrook with her mother and brother.
She also drew on many memories of the characters living in the area. One told her of a secret meeting between the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower on a station platform in the Weald which may, possibly, have stayed secret until now, as he had not been supposed to speak of it.
She wrote: "He was reminded that in times of war any talk of the event would be considered treasonous. Posters on every train warned Careless Talk Costs Lives.
"The two trains approached...He waited on the platform to ensure the security of the station, the only person present until Winston Churchill alighted from the London train and General "Ike" Eisenhower emerged from the other.
"The two visitors stood on the platform deep in conversation for over half an hour, then boarded their trains. Bryn opened the station after their departure and no-one was ever the wiser."
She also recalled the crowds that turned out to ride the final train on the Hawkhurst Line before its closure in 1961. She wrote: "The Hawkhurst Line was often said to be the most beautiful rlway line in the country, if not the whole of England, as it meandered through the Weald of Kent countryside, past fields of barley, past apple orchards where our Russets, Cox's Orange Pippins, Bramleys and Worcesters grew."
She may have now had a string of international bestsellers with her Maisie Dobbs series, but Jacqueline also recalls having had a dream - to write for the Kent Messenger.
In her book she writes: "By the time I'd reached the age of 14 I would have given anything to get a job at the Kent Messenger if I could." But at 16 a school vocation test pointed her in the direction of teaching."
But she says now: "I’m not sure I could have fulfilled that dream of working for the KM. At 16, I had a wild idea that I could get a job in the office and work my way up, but my parents did not consider it a “safe” job, so I was steered toward my A levels and then training to be a teacher. My mother warned me, “If you work at the KM, you’ll end up making tea for the bloke who writes obituaries.” She may have been right - I will never know."
She did later become a journalist in her 30s and then turned to fiction when she moved to America.
Her Kentish memories have provided many a setting or inspiration for her fiction.
"A few of my family stories have already inspired events in my historical mystery series, which features a former WW1 nurse who becomes a private investigator, Maisie Dobbs. An Incomplete Revenge was set at hop-picking time, and more recently, To Die But Once was based upon my father’s experiences in the war, as is my next novel, to be published in March - The Consequences of Fear. Many of the scenes in my novels are set in Kent."
She adds: "In 2014 I published a novel, The Care and Management of Lies, chiefly set on a farm in Kent in the First World War, but with many battlefield scenes in France - that book became a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. I’d like to write a sequel to that book, so there will definitely be more books featuring Kent!"
Although now based on the other side of the Atlantic, but, in normal times, she is still a frequent visitor to the UK and occasionally Kent.
"When we’re not in lockdown, I am a very frequent visitor to the UK - sometimes three or four times a year — and I spend a lot of time in Kent and Sussex where I have friends and family. There are places I always return to, because in my heart it’s “home.”
"Of course places change - and in fact, Cranbrook has changed quite a bit. Not the architecture, but the nature of the place - there are more shops selling non-essentials now, rather than must-haves. When I was a child I think there were three butchers in the town, and several grocery stores, plus three bakeries, three or four tea shops (tea from the urn, not in a fancy pot). If people were out and about, they were on a mission to get their shopping done - they weren’t just wandering around to look in the shops.
"I always go into Tenterden once or twice during a visit - it’s a favourite place for my cousin and I to wander, stop for a nice lunch or tea. One of my favourite things to do is to just drive around my favourite places in Kent - I can do that for hours, stopping here and there - I love it. One of my early novels was set in Dungeness, and I will never forget marching across that windswept beach on a freezing cold day - all part of my “research” for the book."
* This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is out now from Soho Press and the next Maisie Dobbs mystery The Consequences of Fear is due for release on March 18 from Allison and Busby.