Gillian talks about her new venture- and the difficult decisions behind it.
Tell us about your current project….
In early 2008 I was researching the Manchester Blitz of December 1940, when I discovered a June 1940 newspaper which described the arrival of over 17,000 Guernsey evacuees in England. This included 5,000 school children who had left with their teachers, leaving their parents behind. The evacuees had to remain in England for 5 years because the Nazis occupied their island. I knew nothing at all about these evacuees, and tried to find out more but could discover very little. I realised that this was an untold story of the Second World War which, because of the advanced age of the evacuees, needed to be captured. I began to trace surviving evacuees, and discovered that many had not returned to Guernsey after the war, but had remained in England.
Emotional stories of Guernsey evacuees
As I began my interviews in England and in Guernsey, I was gripped by these previously untold and emotional stories. I not only looked at the experiences of children, but also of the mothers, fathers and teachers. I discovered the astounding contribution the evacuees made to the British war effort, as thousands joined the British Forces, built aircraft or made uniforms and ammunition. I discovered that some of the Guernsey teachers who had left with their pupils re-established their schools in England for the duration of the war. I discovered that one school in Cheshire was financially supported by Americans such as Eleanor Roosevelt, and worked with the BBC on a documentary film to tell this story. I also found records of a man called John Fletcher, who raised funds throughout the war in order to provide Christmas gifts for the evacuee children who had left their parents behind in Guernsey. I was lucky enough to interview Guernsey women who were young mothers in 1940. Now in their late 90s, they told me how they had left the rural villages of Guernsey, with their infants, and struggled to make new lives for themselves in English industrial towns.
What made you decide to write your book at this particular time?
Between 2008 and 2010 I worked full time and interviewed evacuees after work and at weekends. I am in my early fifties and found this quite tiring! In late 2010, I decided to record as many stories as I could before it was too late and took advantage of a redundancy scheme to leave my full time job as a university administrator/researcher. A few months later, when I had interviewed around 180 evacuees, I was offered a publishing contract for a book. The timing could not have been better.
Giving up a full-time job in your 50s
How difficult a decision was it to give up full-time employment?
I was lucky because my husband was working, and there was a redundancy scheme in place at the University. If this had not been the case, I would have had to weigh up my finances and perhaps find a part time job so that I could continue my interviews for part of each week.
How have your family reacted?
They have been very supportive and encouraging, and my friends have been wonderful too. I am very grateful to them all. My family were very proud when I received my Guernsey Ambassador of the Year Award in 2011, and they cannot wait to hold a copy of my book in their hands!
Have you had to adjust your lifestyle significantly?
Now that the book is practically complete, I work part time and continue to interview evacuees for the rest of the time. To me, earning more money is not as important as the feeling of satisfaction I get from my research. I organised an evacuee reunion in northern England, and then set up a local Guernsey Evacuee Community Group through which we share the story of the Guernsey Evacuation with schools, colleges, museums and history groups.
Would you have made the same decision had you been single?
That is a difficult question to answer. I would have had to examine my finances and see whether working part time would have been an option. If it had not, I would have had to continue to work full time, and spend every hour of my spare time interviewing evacuees as I had done before.
Would you do the same again?
What advice would you offer others thinking of doing the same thing?
Follow your instincts, and take the chance to do something that you feel really passionate about. Life is too short to look back and think ‘I wish I had done this or that’.
When is your book due to be published?
1st November this year, but it can be pre ordered now on Amazon.co.uk and amazon.com
Twitter name @guernseyevacuee
My latest blog can be found at http://guernseyevacuees.wordpress.com/writing-my-book-blog/