USES OF ENCHANTMENT

Part of my book Far Away contains a fairy story written by one of the POWs who is incarcerated in a camp in Italy during the Second World War. It is about  a young girl, Pelliger, who is raised by crows and longs to fly. This post is about how I came to write that part of the book. First, I came across a letter written to my father, Robert Blake, by his Uncle Norman before he was captured. In that letter my uncle wrote about reading a recently published book called The Sword and the Stone. This book by T.H.White is about Merlin teaching the young Arthur, who becomes King Arthur, about the natural world. I’d read the book at school but not really registered that it was published in the 1940s, so I was surprised to see it mentioned. I dug it out and re-read it and enjoyed it as much as I had as a child. I was intrigued that my uncle had liked the book and rather surprised that he’d read it.

‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’

ALBERT EINSTEIN

At the same time, regular walks were taking me along the towpath that runs between Putney Bridge and Hammersmith Bridge and I began to notice the crows. At that time they favoured a group of trees at a junction where you can turn off the main footpath toward The Barnes Wetland Centre. Then one day I was walking along and came across a corvid mini-drama. A very large baby crow was standing in the middle of the towpath. It seemed about twice the size of an adult crow because it was so fluffy and had rather a beguiling mohican. It was doing what babies of all species have a tendency to do, it was bouncing around quite happily without any sense of danger and in the process completely terrifying its parent. I stopped and waited. Eventually, after a lot of shrieking from the nearby trees, the baby got the message and bounced off the path into a bush and I continued on my way.

‘The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue …’

BRUNO BETTELHEIM: THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT

Over the weeks  that followed the crows continued attracting my attention. I loved the way they surfed on the air currents above Putney Bridge and perched on the top of the street lights there, clinging on even in the face of brutally strong, feather-ruffling winds. I saw them lined up on the stone wall embankment in the grounds of St Mary’s Church, Putney, waiting for the tide to go out. It’s below this wall that the bottom of the river is revealed first and the crows hop about picking up food from the exposed river bed and cheeking the seagulls. I loved their chattiness, their cleverness and what appeared to me to be their distinct sense of humour. I also began to notice the musicality of their calls. I had always associated crows with a distinctly harsh ‘caw’ but as I listened to them more and more I realised that sometimes their calls were distinctly mellifluous and rather tender.

‘When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract and positive thinking.’

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Then I began to write my story, mainly during these walks, in small notebooks. I had no idea how it would fit in but it was presenting itself to be written, so I wrote it. To be frank I was puzzled and rather infuriated. I couldn’t see what it had to do with the rest of my novel. What on earth was I supposed to do with it? But write it I did.  In the end I wrote much more of it than I put in the book. I hope this doesn’t matter. In a sense my book is about the puzzles and incomplete stories that one generation hands down to the next and what we do with them. Within that context I hope it works but to be honest I still don’t really know.

Looking back I think the ‘uses of enchantment’ for me was that I, like my character, needed another story to be immersed in. Thinking my way into the lives of starving, bored, frustrated and imprisoned young men was grueling. Maybe the story gave me and my character some respite from that.

One thing I do know is that writing the fairy story changed my relationship with crows completely. I live on a main road in London and within spitting distance of a part of the District Line which runs overground.  Consequently, there’s a lot of traffic noise but in the early morning, as the sun is rising, it’s as quiet as it gets and it’s then when I hear the crows nesting in the plane trees across the road. There they are, those clever, funny, fiercely communal, chatty birds. To greet the day in their company is always a pleasure.

I’d highly recommend Crow Country by Mark Cocker. He’s a completely stunning writer and here’s the link to his website: http://www.markcocker.com

I also read and loved In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell.

THE IMPORTANCE OF TINS

The importance of tins

The importance of tins

Yes, you read that right. Tins played a very important part in my father’s escape from Sulmona POW camp in Italy in 1943. I’m not going to give away the details of how they were used here. To find out you’ll have to read my book Far Away!

There were approximately eleven tins in each Red Cross parcel. They contained foods like condensed milk, meat roll, cocoa powder, salmon, sardines etc and they were prisoners’ sole source of metal. The Red Cross even produced a helpful leaflet written by The Metal Box Company titled: Useful Articles from Empty Tins – Hints on How to Make Them.

And make them they did. Here are some of the items:

  • drinking mugs
  • frying pans
  • soap trays
  • armour for use in plays
  • ashtray
  • the ferrule of a paint brush
  • ventilation system to help tunnellers breath while digging
  • cooking stoves or ‘stufa’ for brewing up their own drinks and warming food
  • chess pieces
  • xylophone
  • mousetrap
  • theatre spotlights
  • barometer

The brand names were powerful reminders of home: Spam, Nestle, Rowntree, Crosse & Blackwell. And some of the labels, like the one with a leaping salmon were removed and stuck into log books to drool over.

The most coveted tin was a KLIM tin (milk spelled backwards) which came in Canadian Red Cross parcels. When fitted with a handle this would hold more than a pint of liquid.

So next time you casually take a tin opener to a can of tomatoes, use the contents, swill the tin out and trying to avoid slicing open your thumb, chuck it in the recycling, pause for a moment and think how precious that once was to bored yet ingenious young men, imprisoned far away from home during the Second World War. Just pause and think what you could make with it.

ON WRITING ‘FAR AWAY’

Robert Blake

Robert Blake

My novel, Far Away, is based on my father, Robert Blake’s memoirs. The only part he wrote related to his war-time experiences, escaping from an Italian POW camp. I wanted to be able to use substantial pieces of his writing as they were but I also wanted to write a novel.

In other words I wanted to have it both ways.

Of course I did  I’m a novelist! And this story of my father’s escape was probably one of the first to grip my imagination. When I was a child, it wasn’t usually my father doing the telling. By the time I came on the scene he was 48 and  had going on 25 years of repeating what happened to him. I think, understandably, he was fed up with it.

My mother, however,  a natural-born storyteller, told it with relish and perhaps a little elaboration for the benefit of her three children. In fact her enthusiasm about the story remained undimmed whereas my father could get rather grumpy when asked to tell it one more time.

The most extraordinary thing for me about the story of course was that my father, a quiet academic man, who did not like to be rushed in any way, had been one of the protagonists in a thrilling escape. After all, given half a chance, every young child will jump at the chance of casting it’s father or mother  as a hero or heroine. Within the context of this story, I could do exactly that. His own silence on the matter only encouraged me. It might be the mild-mannered ‘Clark Kent’ taking me to school but somewhere back in his past there was the suggestion of telephone booths and lycra!

But what to do about my structural problem?

Fortunately I found a solution when, in the course of my research on Italian POWs, I came across Dan Billany.  He like me was a crime writer. His first book The Opera House Murders had been published by Faber and Faber in 1940. It also came out in America under the title It Takes A Thief and garnered first-rate reviews. He had been a POW in Italy and escaped with his friend David Dowie but  they had not made it back and their bodies had never been found. However the notebooks he had written in while imprisoned were sent back to his family and eventually published as The Trap and The Cage. On reading his books I liked Dan immediately. He was witty and caustic and startlingly frank about the strength of his feelings for his friend David. Alongside his honesty, I liked his sarcastic attitude towards Dorothy Sayers’  aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey and I also warmed to him on the basis of his  views on both education and politics.

Our backgrounds however could not have been more different. Dan came from a working class background in Hull. He  left school at fifteen and after a year as a delivery boy took up an apprenticeship with Humber Electricals. As part of the training he had to do evening classes at a Technical College and thriving there in a way he never had at school he decided to go back into education and matriculated in 1933. He then applied to Hull University to study English and after he’d graduated did a year of teacher training. When war broke out he was working as a primary school teacher.

My background was substantially more privileged. I was brought up in Queen’s College, Oxford and my route through education was as boringly linear as you might expect from those circumstances. The fact that Dan had managed to get published at the age of 27 coming from his background was testament to his ambition, persistence and talent as a writer.

From his story I took the idea of two men writing in the same notebooks. One writing the story of his war so far and the other writing a fairy story. It was a way to use my father’s memoirs as I wanted, give or take a bit of nip and tuck.

One thing Dan’s story did bring home to me was how lucky my father had been. He, like Dan and David, could so easily have died. Reading the work Dan had written while a POW I was also saddened. It seemed to me that the writing in The Trap and The Cage showed greater maturity and depth. I couldn’t help but wonder how his writing might have developed if he had made it safely home.

Dan Billany:Hull's Lost Hero

Dan Billany:Hull’s Lost Hero

If you are interested in finding out more about Dan I recommend Dan Billany: Hull’s Lost Hero by Valerie A. Reeves and Valerie Showan. It’s a warm and highly sympathetic biography about an exceptional young man. Here’s the link to the website about him: http://www.danbillany.com.

Far Away will be available soon as both a physical book and an e-book and here’s the link for that: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

THE LIVES OF POWS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR

To begin with, a bit of a riddle to stretch your little grey cells – what do Maria from The Sound of Music and a POW in Italy during the Second World War have in common?

No?

OK, Poirot is deeply disappointed in you; he is twirling his moustache in a positive frenzy of disappointment.

Here’s a clue – it has to do with favourite things.

No, it certainly does not have to do with solving a problem like Maria, Poirot being singularly uninterested in women and women being singularly absent from the lives of POWs.

Still no?

Oh, for heaven’s sake then I’ll just have to tell you – packages tied up in string.

There – it was easy, wasn’t it? Now you’re kicking yourself.

Yes, this is a post about RED CROSS PARCELS and my God were they tied up in a lot of string. But I’ll get to that a little bit later.

Here comes the serious and rather touching bit.

Red Cross parcels were absolutely crucial in the lives of POWs and the Red Cross were extraordinarily successful in raising money for them and sending them. During the six years of the war the Red Cross sent out twenty million food parcels to POWs. In 1942, the year my father, Robert Blake, was taken prisoner and their peak year, five and a half million were delivered. By the end of the war the Red Cross had sent out fifty-two million pounds worth of parcels and had incurred no debt. By any stretch of the imagination that is a hugely successful campaign.

Each parcel was 31 cm wide by 17.5 cm tall by 11.5 cm deep. And it was filled with food. The aim was to get one to each prisoner per week but due to the vagaries of war-time transport this rarely happened. At the beginning there was an attempt to send bread but this soon ended as the parcels were taking too long to reach their destination. The contents varied slightly but chocolate, tea and sugar appeared in every one because they were universally popular and could be bartered for other food. Indian POWs had their own parcels which contained atta, flour used in South Asian cooking, curry powder, dhal and rice but no tinned meat. Cigarettes and tobacco were sent separately.

A huge amount of string was used to secure them – ten feet per parcel. The string was three stranded sisal and brutally tough on the hands of the packers but very useful to the POWs.

Here are some of the things the string was used for:

  • shoes
  • bags
  • brushes
  • hammocks
  • pulling the wooden trolleys that brought the earth out of escape tunnels – 300 meters of rope was made by those men taking part in the escape depicted in the film The Great Escape
  • wigs for female impersonators to use in plays
  • cricket balls – the string was wrapped round a pebble
  • golf balls
  • tennis nets
  • cricket nets
  • football nets

An unusual donation to the Red Cross campaign came from Hitler when his  English language publishers, Hutchinson, donated £500, (approximately £18,000 in today’s money) royalties earned from sales of Mein Kampf. 

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gilles

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies

If you’re interested in reading any more on this subject I’d highly recommend Midge Gillies excellent book, The Barbed-Wire University. To quote from The Mail on Sunday it’s ‘brilliantly researched, fascinating and deeply moving.’

THE FALL OF TOBRUK JUNE 1942

When nations win wars, the defeats they may have suffered along the way tend to be swept under the carpet. However if our personal failures show rather more interesting things about our personalities than our successes then perhaps defeats should not just be the preserve of military historians.

Seventy-three years ago my father, the historian Robert Blake, was taken prisoner at one of these defeats, the Fall of Tobruk, on the 21st June 1942. This is the background against which my novel Far Away takes place.

It was one of the most severe set backs of the war for the Allies, ranking alongside the Fall of Singapore, (which had taken place during February of the same year), as an absolute catastrophe. The Axis forces captured 35,000 soldiers and a vast amount of fuel, rations, transport and equipment – 5000 tons of food, 2000 serviceable vehicles and 1400 tons of petrol. It was a huge victory for the Axis forces and the occasion when Rommel won his Field Marshal’s baton. Of the defeat Churchill was to say:

This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war. Not only were its military effects grievous, but it had affected the reputation of the British armies.’

WINSTON CHURCHILL

Churchill even faced a motion of censure in the House of Commons in the following month. He won it easily enough: 475 votes to 25 but the fact that it had been mooted at all during a time of war shows the level of concern and anxiety.

The Battleground

The Battleground

The importance of Tobruk, a Libyan port on the Mediterranean, was that it gave the Axis forces a supply port much closer to the Lybian-Egyptian border than Tripoli (1500 km away) and Benghazi (1400 km away). Egypt was important because control of Egypt assured effective communication lines and important air and sea routes. The Suez Canal provided much shorter routes for moving troops and material between the European and Pacific theatres of war. It also gave access to the oil fields of the middle east.

So, what on earth had happened? After all, the previous year Tobruk had held out during a 241 day siege, which had eventually been relieved by Operation Crusader.

On August 5th Churchill arrived in Africa with General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, professional head of the British Army to ‘sense the atmosphere’. The conclusion they swiftly came to was:

  • a drastic and immediate change was required to restore confidence in the High Command;
  • this misfortune was not because of a lack of calibre of the men in the ranks who were described by Churchill as being “brave but baffled”.

On the 9th August a decision was reached; General Sir Claude Auchinleck was sacked as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East and replaced by General Sir Harold Alexander and Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery (“Monty”) was put in charge of the Eighth Army. Auchinleck hated Montgomery and tried to delay him taking command. The delay was only a matter of a few days but it was known that the Germans were planning another attack  at the end of the month and so Montgomery ignored Auchinleck and took control immediately.

Montgomery was ebullient, self-confident and brilliant. You feel he would have had no difficulty in announcing himself Mourinho-style as the ‘Special One’.

This was one of his first orders to XXX Corps:

  • All orders and instructions which refer to withdrawal from or thinning out of our present position are hereby cancelled;
  • XXX Corps will defend the present FDLs (forward defensive lines) at all costs. There will be no withdrawal;
  • The above intention is to be impressed on all ranks immediately.

He ordered that all contingency plans for retreat be destroyed. Essentially he was telling his men – fight or die.

On the way back to Britain, Churchill flew to Russia and a humiliating meeting with Stalin. Stalin harangued Churchill and Brooke demanding to know when the British were going to fight. The answer, presumably much to Churchill’s relief, came swiftly. On the 30th August the Battle of Alam Halfa commenced. Monty had been in post for approximately a fortnight. The Eighth Army smashed the assault and never lost another battle.

Unfortunately this was much too late for my father and the many men like him. He was to spend the next fifteen months incarcerated in an Italian POW camp before escaping in January 1944.

The early Battles of Eighth Army by Adrian Stewart

The Early Battles of Eighth Army by Adrian Stewart

If you’re interested in reading more I’d highly recommend Adrian Stewart’s book The Early Battles of the Eighth Army: ‘Crusader’ to the Alamein Line 1941-1942.

What do you think of my assessment? Too unfair to Auchinleck? Too generous to Montgomery?

I’d be delighted if you left me a comment.

ESCAPE!

WITH ONE MIGHTY BOUND HE WAS FREE!

The other day, writing in my local cafe, I watched as a toddler ran shrieking away from her father, who was acting the role of the Big Bad Monster. The child was screaming with a mixture of delight and terror. The ‘monster’ bore down on her, whisked her into his arms, hoisted her aloft and the child gurgled with pleasure. Most of us have either seen or been participants in that scenario at some time in our lives.

One of the themes of my book Far Away is ESCAPE! In this case from a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War.

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

In his brilliant book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker says:

‘The thrilling escape from death runs very deep. It is one of the most consistent motifs in storytelling.’

He goes on to say that the vast majority of these stories are tied up with ‘overcoming the monster’. After all, there has to be something the protagonist is escaping from.

Here are a few examples:

  • a scantily clad heroine in a silent movie is tied to the tracks as the train bears down on her;
  • Jonah is swallowed by a whale and escapes when he is vomited out of its belly;
  • Little Red Riding Hood escapes the Big Bad Wolf;
  • Jack of the Beanstalk escapes and kills the giant;
  • Goldilocks jumps out of the window and escapes the three bears;
  • In the war film The Guns of Navarone, the guns are the monsters which our heroes blow up before making their escape;
  • In the film The Great Escape POWs tunnel out of a camp in Germany and escape;
  • Jerry, that pesky mouse, finds all kinds of ways to escape the malign attentions of Tom, the cat;
  • In the film The Shawshank Redemption a prisoner tunnels his way out of a prison and escapes through the sewage system. This has also just happened in real life in America. Richard Matt and David Sweat have just tunnelled out of a maximum security jail in Dannemora, New York.

You get the general idea and I’m sure you could add a few of your own! Once you start looking for escape stories you’ll find them everywhere.

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Far Away by Victoria Blake

One of the most interesting things about what happened to my father and what I depict in my novel Far Away is how the ‘monster’ to be overcome, (as Christopher Booker describes it), changed into a saviour. To start with the enemy was the Italians who were running and guarding the POW camps. However, on September 8th the Armistice was announced and on the following day the Allies landed at Salerno and Taranto. At that point the Italian army laid down its arms and the guards drifted away. What happened then, as thousands of Allied POWs poured out into the Italian countryside, was extraordinary.

Many of the Italian contadini – the country people – took incredible risks to help and protect these young men. This is one of the most touching aspects of the story. Of course, if you have next to nothing yourself then maybe it makes you all too aware of what it means to be starving, thirsty and cold. But all the same the risks were huge. If caught by the Germans helping escaped Allied soldiers then the Italians were likely to be killed and have their houses burnt down. That is a very big risk to take for people who, before they were imprisoned, had been fighting their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers.  It is possible to argue that the Italians knowing which way the war was going were acting in their own self-interest, however this does not reduce the level of courage shown or the dangers involved.

And the danger lasted for a long time. Germany did not just hand Italy over to the Allies. It took twenty months for the Allies to fight their way up to Italy’s northern border. It was to be a hard-fought, brutal and bloody campaign.

Do you have a favourite escape story?

Or do you have any stories from Italy at that time?

TALKING TO DAD ON ELECTION DAY

IMG_0990

Harold Macmillan and Robert Blake feasting!

Elections – how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Well, maybe not quite so much now as at the very beginning but basically it would be true to say that I do love an election. This has very little to do with an innate love of politics. I am as likely as the next person to be cynical and depressed about the state of the nation. My love of elections has more to do with talking to my father. He died in 2003 but, as we all know, we do not stop talking to our parents simply because they’re dead.

He was the politics don at Christ Church College Oxford for many years and that is a college with a very proud political heritage. Of the twenty-six prime ministers produced by Oxford thirteen came from Christ Church. He taught people who went on to be politicians and political journalists. He wrote books on politicians. His first book was on Bonar Law – The Unknown Prime Minister. He then edited the volume of Anthony Eden’s diaries that covered Suez. Next came a hugely well received biography of Disraeli followed by A History of the Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher. So politics  was what he did for a living. When he was younger there had been the suggestion that he become an MP. However my mother did not think this would suit his personality or perhaps she did not fancy being an MPs wife. Sensible woman!

Disraeli by Robert Blake

Disraeli by Robert Blake

My father was a very nice man and he was also viscerally conservative. He had considerable charm and generosity along with a wry sense of humour but small talk was not really his thing. Like many experts in their field he was used to people asking him questions and then answering. He lectured for a living, he wrote articles for papers and he appeared on radio and TV. So one way to connect with him was to ask him political questions. He would talk. I would listen. Some of it went in. It wasn’t necessarily that I was always interested exactly but I think I realised from a very young age that it was a way to engage his attention. So if that involved asking him about the single transferable vote when he was Chairman of a Hansard Committee on Electoral Reform so be it.

A plate of Disraeli, Gladstone and Salisbury advertising champagne!

A plate of Disraeli, Gladstone and Salisbury advertising Moet et Chandon champagne!

My childhood was spent surrounded by politicians, both real and antique. My mother was not a woman to pass an antique shop without going in and my father’s interests became hers. Plates, cups, pressed glass were all covered in politicians. I knew what Disraeli looked like from a young age because there he was hanging on the wall and on the cover of my father’s book. I also knew that if I’d been a boy I would have been called Benjamin after him. That focuses the mind. I went on to meet all kinds of politicians in the flesh: Alec Douglas-Home appeared at the back door one day like a very charming wraith; Ted Heath had a huge amount of medals across his chest and a very plummy voice. Later, as PM, his arrival was preceded by sniffer dogs and the kind of red telephone that Almodovar would have approved of. My mother had flu during that visit and was, if not A Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a woman who could not care less if the cake forks had gone missing. ‘Cake forks?’ she said grimly from her sick bed. ‘He can use his fingers.’ Harold Macmillan, very elderly and very handsome, declined to watch himself on television but stayed talking to my mother. Michael Foot was a rarity in being a Labour politician but he had a fascination with Disraeli so he and my father got on like a house on fire, the archetypal odd-couple.

‘SUCCESS IS THE ABILITY TO GO FROM FAILURE TO FAILURE WITHOUT LOSING YOUR ENTHUSIASM.’

WINSTON CHURCHILL

So Dad loved elections. He only missed one campaign in its entirety and that was the first one Thatcher won in 1979. He’d been offered a place to write abroad and we flew out of the country on the day the election was announced and the pilot told the passengers the result on the plane as we flew back. As I remember it, the whole plane burst into applause. Ignorance was bliss. I was about fifteen at the time and I remember being pleased that my father had cheered up. While we were away he was supposed to be writing a book, Disraeli’s Grand Tour, and I suppose some writing was done but he did also exhibit all the signs of a man wishing he was somewhere else. He was not a man who travelled very well at the best of times. In the mornings there would a feverish search for English newspaper and in the evenings he became rather morose. Cut off from friends, London life and club gossip he pined to be back in the centre of things. The company of the BBC World Service, me and my mother was little compensation. As soon as we arrived back in England, he was a man transformed.

‘ONE SECRET OF SUCCESS IN LIFE IS FOR A MAN TO BE READY FOR HIS OPPORTUNITY WHEN IT COMES.’

BEMJAMIN DISRAELI

So on May 7th when I use that stubby pencil to vote I will be missing my father. And I will be reminding myself that there was a time before google when there were experts who could access extraordinary amounts of information not at the press of a button but from their own elegant and incisive minds. I will also remember fondly the short period of time (Iraq war onwards) when our political views coincided (although for entirely different reason) in a hatred of Tony Blair.

Will I stay up? Usually I intend to but then get driven to sleep by pure boredom and irritation around 2 o’clock. However over the next few days I will be having many conversations with my Dad.

  • Do you like Cameron or do you think he’s just a PR man at heart?
  • What coalition would you prefer? Tory-Lib, Lab-SNP, Tory minority, Labour minority etc…etc…
  • Do you think the Tories will vote tactically in Sheffield to keep Clegg in?
  • If Clegg and Danny Alexander lose their seats then who negotiates a coalition?
  • Can you really imagine the blond buffoon as PM? You can’t can you? Please tell me you can’t.
  • Do you think after another hung parliament we’ll finally get some electoral reform?

I wonder what he’ll reply?

What do/did you talk to your Dad about?

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 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.’