By Tina Williams
Local author Jo McMillan addressed a packed Tamworth Town Hall on Monday evening, at the launch of her debut novel Motherland.
Jo, interviewed by LitFest Secretary Philip Hall, beguiled the audience, which included the Mayor of Tamworth, with her poignant, informative and often humorous recollections which inspired her to pen the partly autobiographical novel Motherland, which she touchingly described as ‘a love letter to my mum.’
Jo’s reminiscences drew on her experiences as the ‘only young communist in Tamworth’, her visits to East Germany whilst accompanying her mother, a passionate Communist Party member, and the profound personal impact the fall of the Berlin Wall had on her marriage, her relationship with her mother and her political beliefs.
As the novel is partly autobiographical part of Jo’s address focused on her own life experiences (the characters of Jess, the young girl in the novel and Jess’ mother Eleanor are based very much on Jo’ s own reminiscences). Moving to Tamworth from Hemel Hempstead with her mother in the 1970’s, Jo explained that she very much felt the outsider. She not only had to come to terms with a whole different vocabulary – ‘cobs’ instead of ‘rolls’ and ‘pumps’ instead of ‘plimsolls’, but more fundamentally had to contend with living where she was the only young communist in town.
School history lessons were particularly challenging, the version of the Cold War she was taught being at odds with the one championed by her beloved Communist Party. Whilst other girls in her year group entertained themselves by singing along to the latest hits from Top of the Pops, Jo regaled the audience with how she herself sang along to Communist Party songs from Nazi concentration camps and focused on how she might die heroically for the Revolutionary cause.
Keen to find kindred spirits, Jo explained how, through the pages of the Morning Star, she secured a number of pen pals from East Germany, one of whom she modelled the character of Martina on in Motherland (although as characters invariably do, Martina soon developed a will of her own as the plot unfolded).
Jo explained that Communism was in her family’s blood and that she joined the Young Communist League at a very young age, immediately being made Minute Secretary. She also attended the Communist Party Branch meetings in Tamworth, ran by her mother, meetings which were often so poorly supported that her own attendance was crucial in deeming them quorate.
Jo described her visits to East Germany, accompanying her mother who, at special invitation from the Ministry of Education, attended summer camps to teach German English teachers English. She remarked upon the beautiful surroundings of Potsdam and eating ice cream – to her, as a teenager Socialism seemed to have it all!
The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was a profound shock to Jo and her mum and represented a major turning point in her life. Jo explained how it brought both her dreams of a career as a party official and her marriage to a Party member to an abrupt end. It also drove a wedge between her and her mum: whilst her mum stayed in Berlin, in denial at the collapse of Communism, a disillusioned Jo remained in London, embracing all that Capitalism had to offer. Jo stated that she drew on her experiences of disillusionment with the Communist ideology in Motherland, through the character of Jess, but that in the book this disenchantment and Jess’ own rift with her mother Eleanor occurred before the fall of Communism in 1989.
Feeling that she had been sold a false promise, Jo ignored politics for a couple of decades. It was not until 2009 (the year after the financial crash indicating perhaps that Capitalism too was not a perfect ideology), when Jo broached the subject of her past with her mother, a past which Jo describes as feeling ‘almost dreamlike’, that the rift between mother and daughter began to heal. Jo explained that she recorded these discussions and when she read the transcripts the story that was to become the novel Motherland took shape. The pain of the past dissipated and the distance between mother and daughter was breached, the book being poignantly described by Jo as ‘a love letter to my mum.’
Jo delivered three separate readings to the audience: the first where Jess is tasked by the Young Communist League to think about who are the peasants and workers in Tamworth; the second where Peter, a Party member visiting the UK from the East, is given a guided tour of Tamworth by Eleanor, Jess’s mum and the third where Jess’s mum moves out of Tamworth and does her final sale of Morning Star newspapers
There were a number of questions from the audience which gave rise to a lively discussion on the following themes:
Jo’s experiences of visiting Berlin after the fall of Communism:
Jo explained that in 2009, when she first visited Berlin to research Motherland, she initially found it extremely difficult to cross into the East, as her past was so tied up in what it represented. Once there, Jo explained how she was able to ‘become’ Jess and tried to think and believe as a teenager would when entering Communist East Berlin. Jo stressed that she had to try to ignore the fact that Capitalism had replaced the Communist ideology and the physical changes this had brought, so that she could immerse herself in the character. Jo sated that after travelling back and forth to Berlin, she now lives there.
The integration between the West and East Berliners:
Jo stated that she was not there when Communism fell but that her mother’s reaction was to immerse herself ever more fully in life in the East. The impression that Jo gained from others was that whereas many of the young embraced the fall of the Wall and Capitalism, celebrating the opportunities it gave them, the older citizens felt a great sense of loss. Jo stated that her mother remained in East Germany until the end of the 1990’s, when it became clear that Communism there had gone, she returned to the UK.
What Jo is currently working on:
Apart from publicising Motherland, which Jo informed the audience is to be translated into German and launched there in 2016, Jo stated that she has plans for another book, with a similar protagonist to Jess from Motherland, which draws on her experience of living in China.
Images from the evening: