Empire Day

Krüger, Naomi orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-0194-8333 (2022) Empire Day. In: Lancashire Stories. UCLan Publishing, pp. 1-21. ISBN 978-1-915235-26-8

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Official URL: https://open.spotify.com/episode/4WbcNO7j6PyI89LuU...


‘Empire Day’ is a 5,000-word literary historical short story commissioned for Lancashire Stories – an Art’s Council funded anthology featuring 12 stories set in Lancashire. 10,000 free copies of the book were distributed through the Lancashire Library service when the project launched in November 2022. The anthology is also available as an E-book and my story was selected to be recorded by a voice actor and released as an audio story on the Lancashire Libraries official podcast The Reading Ramble. As part of the launch I also participated in a number events and readings at the Lancashire Archives and local libraries.

The story is a character-driven, multi-layered portrait of a specific historical moment. It is driven by my fascination with the way people are shaped by place and environment as well as Hilary Mantel’s assertion that in historical fiction, characters should never simply by vessels for plot. They ‘have to come onto the page with a hinterland – what they read, what music they listened to, the metaphors that governed their lives, the tales they heard as children.’ (2023:195)

It follows Eddie - a ten-year-old boy due to perform as part of the ‘living Union Jack’ at the 1909 Preston Empire Day Celebration. He finds himself caught between the competing expectations of his socialist father, the teacher who wants him to be a good ‘citizen of Empire’ and a captivating new friend who offers an opportunity for danger and escape. The story also explores the complex dynamics of friendship, the legacies of past trauma, generational silences, class differences, deception and ideas of desire and ‘coming of age.’
The story is informed by detailed archival research into the Preston Empire Day celebrations in 1909 when over 4,000 children gathered at Deepdale football ground to enact an elaborate pageant. This was watched by a large crowd and several invited dignitaries including Lord Meath, the founder of the Empire Day movement.

Many features and developments in the story were directly inspired by archival documents. The newspaper reports from the Preston Chronicle, for example, summarise both the event itself and also some of the wider objections to the Empire Day movement discussed in parliament at the time. These accounts helped me develop Eddie’s father’s opinions in nuanced ways connected to debates that would have been contemporary to him. The detailed photographs and programmes outlining the different performers, costumes and tableaus at the celebration were invaluable. Finding an advertisement in the Empire Day programme for a sports shop that offered film screenings aimed at children helped me to create an important scene where Eddie and his new friend leave a screening and sneak into a cinema to watch a more adult and exciting offering. Listening to an audio-recording of people in Lancashire reminiscing about participating in Empire Day celebrations as children helped me develop the mixture of excitement, pride and bewilderment that Eddie experiences.

Although I wanted to draw attention to the complex social and political forces that underpinned the short-lived Empire-Day movement, I was also keen to do this in a subtle and challenging way rather than being didactic. The story is focalised through the partial understanding of a child caught up in forces he doesn’t fully understand. In this way, a reader can both understand Eddie’s experience, and begin to make wider connections and observations about the narratives and loyalties that simmer in the background. This story is particularly relevant to recent debates around the legacy of Empire, the troubling nature of British exceptionalism and the way those historical narratives have been previously communicated. As Jerome De Groot argues, historical fictions ‘first contribute to the historical imaginary, having an almost pedagogical aspect in allowing a culture to “understand” past moments. Second… they allow reflection upon the representational processes of “history.” They provide a means to critique, conceptualize, engage with, and reject the process of representation or narrativization. (2015:2)

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