THE TITLE THAT GOT AWAY

I make lists of possible titles as I go along. The crime ones came easily enough. Bloodless Shadow (my first crime novel) was from a book of poems, The Rooster Mask, by a friend Henry Hart and he had it from Homer or Virgil. At any rate one of those scenes when the classical hero goes down to the underworld and the bloodless shadows (the dead) cluster around him.

Poetry is a particularly good source for titles because of the way poets crack open language. They jam words together in arresting and muscular ways and that’s what you want from a title. Something that grabs the attention, unsettles , fizzes.

The title of my most recent book Far Away is the least dramatic of my titles but  it persisted and in the end I was satisfied with it.

On occasion regrettably you can come across the perfect title for your book after it’s published. This happened to me the other day when I was reading Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45 by Robert Hewison. I came across this quote from Uys Krige, a South African war correspondent, captured in Africa like my father and a POW in Italy. Here’s his description of what being a POW was like:

“This is a dead world, a lost world and these are lost men, lost each in his own separate limbo, banished from his memories, exiled even from himself. Here even dreams are dead.”

From this short passage I found four titles: Dead World, Lost Men, Banished From Memory and Even Dreams are Dead.

Even Dreams are Dead is the one I like best. That is the title that got away!

Uys where were you when I needed you?

If you’re a writer how do you find the titles of your books or short stories? Does it come easily?

If you’re a reader tell me some of your favourite or least favourite titles.

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ROBERT BLAKE’S LETTERS HOME: PART TWO 26/2/43 – 4/5/43

If the main theme of my father’s letters during the first six months of his captivity was his request for food, clothes and books, the picture that emerges over the next three months of his correspondence is of a more structured existence, as camp PG21 in Chieti becomes more organised and better supplied. In a letter to his father on 2/3/43 he describes his average day:

The day begins with Roll Call at 9 o’clock followed by a scratch breakfast of Red X food (we get a parcel each per fortnight). I spend the morning reading. Lunch (soup) at 12.30. I usually spend the afternoon reading as there are now quite a lot of books in the camp. Roll Call again at 6 o’clock, followed by supper. I usually play bridge or poker after that or else go to the weekly show – which is often quite good. The weather is marvellous. I usually take my exercise walking up and down the path in the middle of the camp for about one and a half hours in the evening. Lights go out at 10.30. It is as you see a simple life & so dull.’

Robert Blake in Oxford

Robert Blake in Oxford

To his mother on 9/3/43 he writes: ‘Life in some ways is not as bad as it was. There are a large number of books in the camp. The clothing situation since I got your parcel on Dec 29 and we got issued with battle dress has improved enormously. Unfortunately our supply of Red X parcels is nearly finished. We never get more than one a fortnight at any time. The theatre here flourishes. Last week they did Ten Minute Alibi and did it very well. Next week they are doing the Merchant of Venice. Do you remember me as Antonio in it at school – not one of my most successful efforts!’

In a letter to his father on 30/3/43 he celebrates, ‘the first big consignment of books from you all – eight excellent law books & 2 parcels from the Elm Hill Bookshop – one with The Count of Monte Cristo. I must say the account of the hero’s imprisonment makes this place seem like a rest camp!’ In other letters he continues to comment on the books he’s reading. On 13/4/43 he writes: ‘I read the other day for the first time Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son and thoroughly enjoyed it, but felt sorry for the son!’

Perhaps my father  was referring to this piece of advice from the insufferably pompous Lord:

I would heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill-manners; it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joys at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind there is nothing so illiberal and ill-bred as audible laughter… I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason, no one has ever heard me laugh.’

Fortunately, not advice that my father, who had a very good sense of humour, would ever have dreamed of giving to me and my sisters!

The prisoners are now (13/4/43) being allowed out of the camp. ‘We are allowed out for walks once a week and I take full advantage of it, for I am sure it is good for one’s mind if nothing else to see something other than these four walls. The news is very cheerful these days and so one lives in hope always. It will be wonderful to see you all again after such a long time.’

As the Italian summer sets in he comments in a letter dated 4/5/43: ‘The weather is beginning to get extremely hot. You would hardly recognize me so brown have I become! Also my hair has got very bleached by sitting in the sun! However I expect it is very good for me.’ The theatre in PG21 is putting on such up to date plays that he even ends up recommending a play he has seen to his mother. ‘Last week the theatre performed The Man Who Came to Dinner, an extremely funny American play and film now running in London. If it comes to Norwich don’t miss it. ‘Even Daddy’ (as Jill would say) will enjoy it.’

THE SCANDAL OF MI9 AND THE “STAY PUT” ORDER

I thought I’d give a brief summary of the military  situation in Italy at the point when my father escaped. If you bear with me this will hopefully be more interesting than that first sentence suggests! First a brief timeline:

  • 10 July 1943 Allied troops landed on Sicily;
  • 3rd Sept 1943 British 8th Army (under the command of General Bernard Montgomery) landed on the toe of Italy and the Italian government agreed to an armistice with the Allies;
  • 8th Sept 1943 the armistice was publicly announced. i.e. from this point on Italy was no longer fighting in the war.
Map of Italy showing the three camps: Bari, Chieti and Sulmona where Robert Blake was held as a PoW

Map of Italy showing the three camps: Bari, Chieti and Sulmona where Robert Blake was held as a PoW

The Italians may have laid down their arms but that did not mean that Italy was not going to be a nation that was savagely fought over. There were 80,000 PoWs in camps scattered all over the country. So in this chaotic situation what was going to happen to them? This was something that had been concerning MI9, a top-secret branch of the Ministry of Defence, for some time. MI9’s role was to help bring home Allied soldiers stuck behind enemy lines. Now they had 80,000 of them to think about. The decision they came to was by any standards a complete disaster. On June 7th 1943 they issued the notorious “stay put order” P/W 87190:

“In the event of an Allied invasion of Italy, officers commanding prison camps will ensure that prisoners of war remain within camp. Authority is granted to all officers commanding to take necessary disciplinary action to prevent individual prisoners of war attempting to rejoin their own units.” 

The order was issued through the popular radio programme “The Radio Padre”. The Reverend Ronnie Wright began the show, ‘Good evening, forces.’ His use of the word ‘forces’ being the sign to PoWs listening in on their clandestine radios that there was a hidden message further on in the broadcast.

The only justification for this would have been if MI9 knew that the Germans were going to abandon Italy to the Allies. However, the Germans had no intention of doing this; they began to pour troops south to meet the Allied threat. The war in Italy was to be bloody and protracted and only ended when the Germans surrendered in May 1945. That original order was never countermanded.

My father was in PG21 at Chieti at the time of the armistice. When the Italian guards drifted away in the middle of the night, the SBO (senior British officer) Colonel Marshall threatened to court-martial any PoW who left. When there was a near mutiny, he appointed his own guards and ordered them to man the watchtowers. The German paratroopers, who turned up shortly afterwards to take control of the camp, were dumbfounded to find the prisoners still in the compound. There had been a very small window of opportunity to escape and now it had vanished. The PoWs in Chieti were transported to PG78 at Sulmona and from there by train on to Germany and Poland.

In total 50,000 prisoners fell into the hands of the Germans and of those 4-5% are thought to have died in captivity.  Of the remaining 30,000, 11,500 escaped by either going north to Switzerland or (like my father) south and crossing the German lines to reach the Allied forces. What happened to the rest remains a mystery.

The Decline of Power1915 - 1964 by Robert Blake

The Decline of Power 1915 – 1964 by Robert Blake

So who was to blame? My father in his book The Decline of Power 1915 – 1964 (Granada Publishing 1985) writes that it was Montgomery who, “characteristically assumed that he would clear Italy at once.” He goes on to write that Montgomery  thought , “it would be tidier if they (the PoWs) could be duly collected in an efficient organized manner instead of being scattered all over the place drinking like fishes and sleeping with Italian girls.” The source he sites is a history of MI9 written by M.R.D. Foot and J.M. Langley. Perhaps this is true; or perhaps MI9 was eager to pass the buck. There is no paper trail to link Montgomery to the decision. Unsurprisingly the original order has disappeared from the War Office archives in Kew, presumably destroyed so that no single  individual could be linked to what turned out to be such a colossal and costly error.

 

A VERY IMPORTANT POSTCARD

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This Red Cross postcard falling through their letterbox was the moment when my grandparents knew for certain that my father was alive. He had been taken prisoner at the fall of Tobruk on the 21st June 1942. Unfortunately the postcard is not dated but I have two letters from the War Office. One dated the 17th July stating that my father was missing-in-action and then one on the 7th September stating he was a prisoner of war. So it was at least two months before they knew he was definitely alive.

This is what it says:

My dear Mummy,
I am alright (I have not been wounded). I am a prisoner of the Italians and I am being treated well.
Shortly I shall be transferred to a prisoner’s camp and I will let you have my new address.
Only then will I be able to receive letters from you and to reply
With love from Bobby

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What a relief it must have been for them to receive this. It’s not surprising that they could never bring themselves to throw this postcard away. Nor could my mother when she was clearing out the house after my grandparents died. These kinds of documents come down through the generations for a reason.

I can’t help but find it incredibly touching and I love the Italian version of ‘with love’ – SALUTI AFFETTUOSI.

Their son was alive!