FAR AWAY

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Here is the cover of my new book, Far Away, which is due out this summer. I like it very much for its mean and moody atmosphere. I love those footprints tracking away through the snow. I like that lone wolf of a man on the horizon. I’ve been very lucky so far in the covers I’ve had. I’ve never had much cause to complain.

The cover of my first book, Bloodless Shadow, was Hertford Bridge, the Oxford “Bridge of Sighs,” a bridge I had walked under I don’t know how many times in my life, because it was the route from our home to the market where my mother did most of our shopping. Like this one, it also had the silhouette of a man walking away. The man looked rather eerily like my father. However Dad had died three months before the book was published. Well, I thought he was dead until he materialized on the front of my book!

Bloodless Shadow

Bloodless Shadow

Far Away is the first book I’ve published as an Independent Author and it’s a very different thing when you are choosing your own cover – a degree of paranoia kicks in. After all, even if we wish it wasn’t the case, we all know the snap judgments we make on the basis of appearance. So covers matter. It’s what your prose is dressed in. Anyway, here it is and I’m delighted to show it to you.

What do you think of the cover? If you’re a writer what have your experiences been like with your covers? Tell me the good, the bad and the ugly!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Far-Away-Victoria-Blake/dp/1784623407

http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

LETTERS HOME: POWS – SECOND WORLD WAR

I’m publishing my book FAR AWAY this year, a novel based on my father’s memoirs of being a POW in Italy and then escaping,  so this post is about POW letter writing in general and his letters in particular. As far as I can tell from the numbers of letters and postcards I have, officers were allowed to write four letters and four postcards a month. There was a magazine called The Prisoner of War, produced by The Red Cross  for the next-of-kin of POWs and in this suggestions were made as to what one should and shouldn’t write about. The concern was naturally for the men’s morale. The resulting lists are rather quaint to today’s eyes and the not list seems altogether more interesting than the first one:

WHAT TO TELL HIM

  • film you saw
  • book you read
  • sermons you heard
  • flowers you grow
  • skirt you made
  • money you saved
  • words baby learnt

WHAT NOT TO TELL HIM

  • dinner you ate
  • cold you caught
  • bomb you dodged
  • fright you had
  • pound you lost
  • vase you broke
  • ration book loss

Letters that were sent to POWs which contained thoughtless comments were known as ‘mail bag splitters.’ Here are a few examples quoted by Midge Gillies in her fascinating book The Barbed-Wire University (Aurum Press).

Darling I’m so glad you were shot down before flying became dangerous.

From a complaining wife: Here I am working myself to death and you are leading a life of luxury.

Do you get out to do much shooting?

From a wife:You have just bought me a silver fox fur – aren’t you glad?

Written in September 1940:Keep your chin up – it won’t be long now. 

Can you buy beer over there or do they only sell wine?

I am having an affair with a Canadian airman and he is having cigarettes and parcels sent you from Canada

Letters were censored and if you ignored that then your relative was likely to receive a letter that looked something like this:

Dear Buddy






Love Nana

This was exactly what happened to Clive Dunn of Dad’s Army fame when his gran sent him a letter. He didn’t seem to mind, suggesting that the hilarity it produced was much better for morale than the crossed out contents could ever have been.

Some people used code words or expressions that might slip under the censor’s pen. Uncle Joe for example was code for Stalin and therefore a reference to what was going on in Russia. Bill Murray, who was captured in North Africa, used a coded message relying on a sequence of letters to his mother informing her that his boots had been taken and they had no suitable footwear for the bitterly cold Italian winter. She went to the Glaswegian branch of the Red Cross and they arranged for 2000 boots to be delivered to the Italian POW camp where her son was being held.

In a letter to his sister Jill on 6/7/43 my father wrote:

‘I shall be writing my next letter home in French as they say letters written in a foreign language get home quicker. It will be good practice for you to correct the grammar!’ 

In fact he wrote one letter in French and an almost identical one in Italian. Here’s the French one.

My dear Mother

Imagine how happy I felt to receive four letters from Brundall (the village in Norfolk where he was born). However I feel very sad at the news of Colin Pitman’s death. Many of my best friends have died since the beginning of the war – Bill Garnet, Christopher Cadogan and now Colin. It’s very sad. I can’t help but wonder what life will be like after the war and I can come to no real conclusion other than to think it will be very different to the life we have at the moment. I am quite well. The censor prevents me from giving you all the details you ask for or from speaking of the war. I pass the time reading and taking a bit of exercise. I recently read a biography of Catherine of Aragon which I found very interesting. It is written by an American and consequently the style is rather barbaric! I must finish now. Tell Jill as far as I’m concerned she shouldn’t worry too much about exams! My love to Jill and Daddy

Love Bobby

It’s interesting that this is one of the few letters in which he expresses his feelings. Maybe writing in another language gave him permission to do that. I remember once when I was quite young saying to my mother wasn’t it lucky that neither she nor my father had anyone close to them killed in the war. She came out with some rather vague response. How naive I was. Of course they had losses but like many of their generation they simply chose never to talk about them.

 

THE IMITATION GAME versus BREAKING THE CODE

Andrew Hodges brilliant book which inspired the play, Breaking the Code, and the film, The Imitation Game

The brilliant book by Andrew Hodges which inspired the play, Breaking the Code, and the film, The Imitation Game.

Every war has its invisible heroes. I’ve been thinking about that recently in the context of the novel I’ve been working on, Far Away, which is based on my father, Robert Blake’s, account of escaping from a prisoner of war camp in Italy during the Second World War. In some respects his account is a classic Boy’s Own account of derring-do. But what he never wrote about was that when he got back to England he was in MI6, albeit at a fairly junior level. So there is the visibility and drama of his escape story contrasted with the complete silence of what happened next. At least he could talk about some part of his war experience if he wanted to.

Alan Turing could not say a word.

He’s the subject of the recent film The Imitation Game and if ever there was an invisible hero it’s Turing. He was the British mathematician, who, at Bletchley Park, was responsible for creating the machine which broke the German Enigma code during the Second World War.  That act, the film tells us, is supposed to have been responsible for ending the war two years early and saving 14 million lives. Turing is also viewed as the inventor of the digital computer. So, an extraordinary thing to have done, and by any consideration an extraordinary individual.

However, he was a gay man at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. In the 1950s he was prosecuted for gross indecency (i.e. sleeping with his boyfriend in his own home) and given the choice between chemical castration and two years in prison. He chose the drugs and then one year later committed suicide at the age of 41. His security clearance for GCHQ had been removed by the government because at that time homosexuals were viewed as a liability due to the risk of them being blackmailed. The way he was treated was eventually viewed as so shameful that Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology in 2009:

‘On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say we’re sorry, you deserved better. So much better.’

GORDON BROWN

In August 2009 a petition was started to get him pardoned, leading to the Queen signing a posthumous pardon for his conviction of gross indecency, on Christmas Day 2013. I had seen Hugh Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code, with Derek Jacobi playing Turing, in the late eighties (that was adapted for TV in 1996) and loved it, so I was interested to see what the film would be like. Click below if you want to see the 1996 TV drama and do your own compare and contrast.

Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderful and I can see why he’s been tipped for an Oscar but the film he excels in is rather pedestrian and filled with the sort of fake obstacles that screenwriters use when they are not trusting the innate power of their story or the intelligence of their audience. The effect was to stretch my credulity to breaking point too many times and make me wonder what might have happened if Tomas Alfredson, who directed the film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, had been in charge. Or indeed Mike Leigh.

There are some striking differences between the play and the film. In the film there are no scenes which depict Turing with his male lovers whereas in the play there are several. The film focuses instead on the relationship between Turing and a female code breaker, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. Obviously, I can see the commercial reasons for giving Knightley a prominent role but the absence of his male lovers still seems to me pretty baffling. We are supposed to live in more enlightened times, aren’t we? and yet this is a film that seems to have taken one step back into the closet. In the play we also see Turing with some kind of emotional hinterland; there are his lovers and also his mother. The depiction of him is of a less traumatized and more connected individual. Certainly he’s eccentric but he’s not as isolated. In the play it is also clear that Turing naively shops himself to the police by telling the truth about his relationship. There’s none of that in the film or the fact that he killed himself by biting into an apple laced with cyanide. So, no mother, no lovers, no apple and no cyanide.

So what does the film have going for it?

Well, it’s got Cumberbatch’s performance and it’s also got the machine (or Bombe as it was called) and that’s gripping, lots of red spaghetti-like wiring and whirring and clicking cogs. And it also has a stand out performance by Alex Lawther as the young Turing.

One other thing that I liked very much in the film was the phrase ‘blood-soaked calculus’. This was used to describe the calculation the secret services had to make about whether they could act on the information they got from deciphering German messages. This was because they did not want the Germans to know they had broken Enigma. So the decision with each piece of information was: Can we use this or will it give the game away? As a writer, I’d have been very proud of myself if I’d come up with that expression. As a human being I’m very glad I’ve never had to make those sorts of  decisions.

Both Jacobi and Cumberbatch are fantastic actors and where they both excel is in conveying in a compelling manner reams of barely comprehensible (to me anyway) mathematics in a way which means that you completely believe that they understand what they are saying, even if you haven’t got a clue. On the whole I think I preferred Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code, which seemed to me  more sophisticated and more nuanced than the film.

One last point. As the film points out, 49,000 men were prosecuted under the same law as Turing. What about them? It makes no sense to pardon Turing and not them. No sense at all.

This is what Lord McNally, the Lord Chief Justice at the time Turing’s pardon was being considered, had to say on the matter:

‘A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence… It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence that now seems both cruel and absurd – particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However the law at the time required a prosecution and as such long standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than try and alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right ensure instead that we never return to those times.’

To paraphrase: Back then the law was an ass but it was the law. I can see where he’s coming from but I’m glad his view and ‘long standing policy’ didn’t prevail. The human heart requires a different response, doesn’t it?

Andrew Hodges’ brilliant book  Alan Turing: The Enigma published in 1983 was the source material for both Breaking the Code and The Imitation Game. Here’s the link to his website: http://www.turing.org.uk

What do you think of retrospective pardons and apologies? Too little too late? Or an important way in which society seeks to tell itself that it’s changed for the better. What did you think of the film?

ROBERT BLAKE’S LETTERS HOME: PART ONE 31/08/42 – 26/2/43

Robert Blake (second from the left) at Oxford in the 1930s

Robert Blake (second from the left) at Oxford in the 1930s

My father, Robert Blake, was in three prisoner of war camps in Italy: Bari, Chieti and Sulmona. I have 21 letters and 23 post cards that he wrote to his family between 31/08/42 and 17/8/43. All sent from the POW camp P.G. 21 in Chieti. There is a degree of repetition in the subject matter so in this post I’m going to give an overall impression of the first six months of this correspondence.

At the very beginning his pressing concern was letting his mother and father know what they could send him. He had three things he wanted more than anything else: food, clothes and books.

In a letter of 8/8/42 he writes: ‘There is no limit on books or tobacco and you can send four clothing parcels up to 10 lbs in weight per year which can also contain chocolate to make up the weight. Books are supposed to be sent new from a publisher or bookseller some say but I have had no confirmation of this.’

On the question of food: ‘You cannot send food from the UK, but there is no restriction on parcels from anywhere in the Empire, so if you know anyone in Canada, S.A. (South Africa) or India it might be worth trying. I am trying to get stuff sent from the M.E (Middle East)  where also there are no restrictions… The great thing is to have as many sources as possible, for all sorts of difficulties may impede things coming. I know all this sounds horribly greedy but when one has been as hungry as I have sometimes, one becomes frankly unscrupulous.’

On the 3/11/42 things have not got any better. He still has no books and no new clothes and is feeling depressed. ‘Fighting in Egypt would be preferable to this dismal existence… there is absolutely nothing to read,’ and on 10/11/42 he states, ‘I want any books you can send on anything.’ He also comments that the weather has become more unsettled  and colder, ‘which is not much fun in view of my lack of clothes.’ At this point the only clothes he had were the ones he had been captured in five months earlier. He has however cheered up enough to make a joke: ‘ “Well, it has come true at last – “In the prison cell I sit, thinking Mother dear of you” !!’  And he writes: ‘Some wit has put up a notice here “Post early for Xmas – and how! as the Americans say.’

On the 27/11/42 he states, ‘I am rather cold but otherwise alright.’

In December the weather improves and with it his mood. 4/12/42: ‘The weather after being wretched has become much warmer, and so one feels considerably more cheerful.’

On 6/12/42 he comments on a letter he has received from his parents describing eating pheasant at a friend’s house and says he would, ‘give almost anything for a real English meal again…’ However he is feeling optimistic, ‘I do honestly believe we shall celebrate the Xmas after this together.’

Robert Blake (far left)  during military training as an officer in the Royal Artillery 1939 - 1940.

Robert Blake (far left) during military training as an officer in the Royal Artillery 1939 – 1940.

On 1/1/43 everything changes because having been a POW for six months he finally receives a parcel from home: ‘Great Joy! The N of K (next-of-kin) parcel actually arrived. Very very many thanks. It is quite the best thing that has happened since I became a POW. Everything in it was most welcome.’ In a letter on 5/1/43 he writes: ‘It was marvelous to have a pullover and a warm shirt and an incredible luxury to be able to sleep in pyjamas. What I really need now is a pair of trousers preferably corduroy slacks which are very warm and comfortable, as my K.D. (khaki drill) shorts are very dilapidated and rather chilly.’ Although he has been getting letters from home it is only now for the first time that he knows that they have received a letter of his, albeit the one dated August 31st. He comments: ‘The delay in the mail has been so bad that you may wait till Doomsday before you get the right letter…’

By 26/1/43 things are looking up because, ‘… the food situation is considerably better, and at long last battle dress has arrived in the camp, and I will get proper clothes.’ Also a law book, ‘Cockle on Evidence’, has finally arrived sent by his Uncle Norman, who was a judge, ‘but it goes to Rome for censorship before I get it.’ In this same letter to his father he gives a snapshot of how he passes the time: ‘I spend the day here playing cards going to some law lectures, which are not really much good, but fill the time learning, as best I can, German and Italian. There is a good band in the camp, and a play or show put on every week. They are really very good. The main need is books, but like being hungry one gets used to being without books tho’ I found it very trying at first. I have become much better at doing nothing! All very demoralizing, I fear.’

On 8/2/43 he writes saying how much he’s missing home: ‘It is already getting on for 2 years since I saw any of you. In ancient times people used to be exiled as a punishment for certain crimes. One can realize now what a punishment it must have been.’

Now finally the book situation is beginning to improve and he has managed to get his hands on a copy of Alec Waugh’s ‘Loom of Youth’ which was presumably lighter reading than ‘Cockle on Evidence’. ‘It’s amazing to think he was only seventeen when he wrote it. Books of any kind are most welcome.’

On 23/2/43 he writes to his mother telling her he has had a tooth out: ‘Owing to the abscess the cocaine which was injected did not work at all, and so I experienced what was I believe one of the oldest Chinese tortures! It really was very painful.’ He adds philosophically: ‘If I had known before the war all the things which were going to happen to me I should have put my head in the gas oven, and yet when they actually happen they are not so bad as all that – which goes to show how fortunate it is that we are not gifted with prophetic vision!’

It’s not really surprising that for the rest of his life my father was always an extremely reluctant visitor to the dentist.