Who, Why, When By Claire North

Who, Why, When By Claire North

Thinking about when Harry would die was as important as thinking about when he was born. I didn’t want the tale to be too speculative – this was not a man who would live to see 2050 – but rather his story should be confined within events both recognisable and relatively recent. Nor was this an historical novel. I wanted Harry to see the world, which could be challenging before the invention of the steam train. With these parameters, when should Harry be born?

1900ish was appealing – the differences between a year when Queen Victoria was still on the throne and the swinging sixties are immense. However, a 1900 lad would be pushing his luck if he wanted to live long enough to see the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the dawn of the internet. With this in mind, I tried to work out how old I’d like Harry to be for big historical events. Did I want him to fight in the trenches of World War One? How about World War Two? If he was born at the end of the First World War, he would be just about old enough to be called up for the second, and would be hitting his forties in time for the Cuban Missile Crisis; by the collapse of communism he would be in his late sixties. For these reasons, and plenty of others, 1918–19 became more appealing years in which Harry could be born, allowing him to not only see but participate in some of the most incredible events of the twentieth century.

History also helped provide the who of Harry since not only did technology and politics change across the century, but society did too. In the 1920s it was “moral” to castigate a woman who had sex outside marriage; alcohol was outlawed in America; and Britain regarded its Empire as a “civilising” venture. How would it be, I wondered, for someone who had lived through the 1970s and 1980s, who had come to think of society in a more modern way, to then be popped back into the 1920s? Foreknowledge of the future does not merely mean foreknowledge of events, but also of ideas. I wanted Harry August to live through a period of history where fundamental ideas about people, about gender and race, religion and freedom, all changed.

Right there the who of Harry August began to emerge. A man of his times in his first life, he is bewildered by the changes in society but does the best he can to get by. Born again into his second, third, fourth lives, the world in which he finds himself a child now seems entirely different. Values and ideas he accepted at face value during his first life, on the repetition seem utterly absurd, and so Harry moves through his days increasingly distant from the concepts that other people find important. It is hard to become hysterical about the threat from communism in the 1960s when you have seen it fall in the 1980s. It is hard to feel relief when Neville Chamberlain declares “peace in our time” in 1938, knowing that war is coming; or to share in the casual anti-Semitism of your peers in 1934, having seen Auschwitz in 1945. The times he has lived through – and times yet to come – change who Harry is.

One thing always leads to another in books. Logical things tend to connect up. A boy born in 1919 with all the memories of the 1980s is going to be exasperated by his youth. Being treated as a child; exposed to ideas he now finds oldfashioned; taught concepts he knows to be wrong at university and school. All of these frustrations, stemming from the when, add to the who. Harry August sits both within and outside his world, wanting to be part of it but forced by his circumstances to look at it as if he was a stranger from another planet. At the same time, he has the knowledge to change history beyond all recognition, and for all his detachment is still human, still burns with desires and needs, and so another part of the who emerges from this medley – the man who goes looking for answers.

All of this was logical good sense in my head as I sat down to write a short story in Stratford-upon-Avon. The when led to the who and the who led to the why of the story. What I didn’t realise then was that the why would grow of its own accord, and a short story suddenly became a whole lot bigger. Why does Harry do what he does? Because of who he is. What made him who he is? The time in which he was born, the context in which he lived and of course the why of how he lives again and again. Turned out that these questions – who, why, when – all loop back on themselves in the end.