Friday, 19 May 2017

My Weapon is My Writing: Olga Tokarczuk at the London Book Fair.

First published by English PEN, 12 May 2017

‘I treat language like a tool, like a fork and knife when you have to eat reality’, the multi-award winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk told her audience at the English PEN literary salon at this year’s London Book Fair, causing quite a stir. Verbal cutlery or not, Polish is now the second most spoken language in England and Wales, and Poland was this year’s ‘market focus’ at the fair. Visitors were buzzing round the stands showcasing the country’s long and vibrant literary heritage through the work of novelists, poets, non-fiction and children’s authors, as well as Poland’s five Nobel prize winners for literature. Tokarczuk, Poland’s most famous female writer and more than once on the Nobel long-list herself, was one of several international authors attracting the crowds to PEN’s salon.

Perhaps it is ironic then that in recent years the Polish domestic budget to help promote challenging literary authors such as Tokarczuk has been considerably reduced or reallocated. This is partly why PEN America awarded a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to Jennifer Croft for Tokarczuk’s award-winning The Books of Jacob, to help bring it to an English-speaking readership. ‘Promoting free speech, giving someone a voice, is the most important job in the world’, English PEN’s Robert Sharp says, ‘especially when there is so much need for empathy and understanding in the world.’

I have a particular interest in Polish history and the Polish book market. My last book, The Spy Who Loved, was a biography of Polish-born Krystyna Skarbek, a.k.a. Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent in the Second World War. One of my hopes for the book is that as well as telling the story of this remarkable war hero, it might draw attention to some of the key roles played both by women, and by Poles, during the war. I was delighted when The Spy Who Loved was translated into Polish and published under the title Kobieta Szpieg, or ‘Female Spy’. Unable to return to Poland under the Soviet-backed Communist regime after the war, Krystyna Skarbek spent the rest of her all-too short life in London, and is buried in Kensal Green. At first I felt she would have been delighted to be, in some sense at least, finally returning home. But of course she has never been forgotten in the country of her birth where she is already the subject of a number of studies and one fascinating work of fiction by the novelist Maria Nurowska, who met me in Poland during my research for the book to share her insights. Sadly none of Nurowska’s books have yet been translated into English and, even the prolific Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob will be only her third novel published in English.

Tokarczuk was a professional psychologist until, she says, she realised she was ‘much more neurotic than my clients’. She now claims she could not live without writing: ‘the truth is, I cannot do anything else’. In conversation with Rosie Goldsmith at the English PEN literary salon, she spoke powerfully about the responsibility that, she believes, comes with writing, and which she sometimes feels weighing on her back ‘like luggage’. ‘Proud to be a feminist writer’, one of her key concerns is to consider reality from diverse points of view. As a young girl she used to sit, out of sight, under tables, ‘looking at shoes, legs, and the entire theatre’ as she listened in to other people’s conversations. Growing up she felt the rich presence of Jewish culture everywhere, among other influences, and began to relish how deeply literature was connected to culture. Her own writing reflects the traditional multiculturalism of Poland that existed before the war and the homogeneity promoted by post-war Communism. But it also addresses more negative issues, such as Polish anti-Semitism. Her books are ‘the best advertisement you could think of for Poland’, fellow author Jacek Dehnel argues, ‘but they show the history of Poland from a non-national point of view, giving voice to various minorities’. When pushed to define her writing identity, Tokarczuk says she feels like ‘a Central European writer, writing in Polish’.

Today Polish identity is principally, but not exclusively, Roman Catholic, and with the country’s current, socially conservative, ‘Law and Justice’ party in office, there is once again less celebration of the nation’s traditional diversity, and less promotion of alternative voices. For some, ‘social life in Poland is focused on demos’ Tokarczuk laughs, but for her, ‘my weapon is writing’. ‘Poles don’t want to know the truth about our history’, Maria Nurowska adds. ‘The role of the writer is to overthrow, and this is what Olga [Tokarczuk] does.’ As tool, knife and fork, or weapon, Tokarczuk and her compatriots know how to deploy words to good effect. What is needed now is the support to help them reach greater audiences both domestically and across international borders.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Translating Lives: What it’s like helping refugees to learn English

First published by Refugee Action on their website, 29th March 2017.

‘Open your files’, Hilary remembers brightly beginning her first English-language class for Syrian refugee families in Cambridge, talking through an interpreter. ‘The whole group smiled, sat forward, and turned open the back cover of their files, ready to go’. Learning a language from absolute scratch can, it seems, be much more than simply a question of grammar and vocab. It is about learning how to translate your entire life, and learning how to operate in a different country and through a culture and set of rules that may often appear to work back-to-front.

Hilary’s colleagues joke that she has been teaching English to refugees coming to Britain ‘since the Huguenots’. That might be pushing it, but her decades of service testify to the fact that desperate people seeking refuge is far from a new phenomenon. Hilary’s first classes were for Ugandan-Asians arriving in Derby in the early 1970s. As a former French teacher who had just left work to have a baby, she volunteered to give some English-language classes, and has never looked back. Soon she was also teaching women coming from Punjab, and not long after she had moved to Cambridge, in 1979, she started classes for the first refugees to arrive from Vietnam, who came under the auspices of Save the Children.

A decade later it was refugees from Bosnia supported by the Red Cross. Some of the men arrived weighing only 6 stone and were sent straight to hospital. Almost all were undernourished, abused and traumatized. On learning that Hilary received a small salary, one of the men ‘stared at me with his wonderful blue eyes’, she recalls, and told her ‘I would rather the government just gave me the money so I could buy a gun and go back to protect my family’. His wife and children were still living under shelling in Mostar, but would eventually be reunited in Cambridge.

The Syrian families now settling in Cambridge are arriving under a government scheme to provide safe shelter for select families from refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey, who are deemed to be particularly ‘vulnerable’. The first four families arrived in late 2015, and have since been joined by another five. It is a slow process, as arrivals depend on Cambridge City Council being able to provide suitable modest-rent accommodation within the city. New landlords are always desperately needed.
The government scheme includes funding for the adults to attend some English classes but none that are suitable for complete beginners exist in Cambridge. Instead the independent volunteer Cambridge Refugee Resettlement Campaign organizes, among many other things, specific classes with Hilary and two other volunteer teachers. The teachers work for free, and premises are provided by both the Quakers and a Catholic Church which donates use of its hall as well as money for refreshments, warm clothes and toys for the children.

Hilary always starts new classes by dividing her group down gender lines. She then asks the groups separately whether they are happy both to learn together, and to have a female teacher. So far the classes have always opted to be taught together with her – which is good because as yet there is only one male teacher, although several men volunteer as interpreters. Nevertheless Hilary is acutely aware of the significance of gender in her classes, and generally feels the men find the work particularly difficult. ‘The men are more conscious of making a fool of themselves, either in language classes or in public’, she says. Struggling to even write their name in front of their wives can be a further blow to self-esteem at a time when ‘everything has been taken away from them, not just their homes, jobs, friends and language, but also the status that came from earning a living and providing for their family – that’s all gone’. In some ways the Syrian women’s familiar roles continue, albeit in different circumstances. Few have worked outside the home, and in Britain they are busy ‘shopping, cooking and looking after the children – and this helps them to relate to ordinary life in a different country’ Hilary says. ‘Men are more cut off from their everyday experiences.’ Hilary therefore tries to maximize the value of her language classes by developing spin-off projects. The women are now swapping recipes and hope to publish an English-language Syrian recipe book. With the men, Hilary hopes to arrange for each to visit someone doing the job they used to do in Syria, such as tilers, tailors – two great jobs to help with pronunciation Hilary notes – builders or civil engineers. Not only will this give them a chance to see how transferable their skills may be, but it will also give them the opportunity to relate to a professional other than a teacher or social worker.

There is still some work to be done before such a project can be realized however. Classes are arranged via an interpreter so Hilary can learn a little about her students as she introduces herself. She needs to ascertain their previous level of education as study skills are a great advantage, and it is also good to know about their interests so she can pick up on this to support their learning. At the same time, she will never ask about their families or past life, because this might open up trauma or cause friction or embarrassment. It is a difficult balancing act requiring considerable empathy and respect on the part of both teacher and students. Mobile phones are a mixed blessing in such circumstances. Everyone has pictures to share that they can talk about, but recently one woman showed some film she had just received of her old house destroyed, with the bodies of several dead soldiers in front of it.

The first goal is to enable the class to be able to recognize, write, say and spell out loud their and their children’s names accurately. Then they move on to health vocabulary, using games and songs to help make it stick. Children of school age attend local schools supported by volunteers, but pre-school children come to the classes with their parents, where another volunteer will play with them in the same room. Hilary is always delighted when she is teaching and a toddler’s voice suddenly sings from under the table ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ or repeats ‘it’s two o’clock’, but she also recognizes that the children’s fast progress can be an added pressure on their parents.
The main challenges the adult students face however, are all practical ones. Personal and family health is one key issue, as many arrive unwell. They also have other appointments to keep. Few want to argue about the time they have to sign on at the job centre, and they may not have the language yet to explain a timing clash. But Hilary has yet to have a student drop out, and some travel with toddlers an hour each way on buses to attend.

Over time fantastic results come from such dedication. Last month one mother proudly told Hilary she had made a doctor’s appointment for her son, and taken him alone without needing an interpreter. Another is building up his language by watching football on TV. Already a Manchester United fan in Syria, he has discovered that football really does transcend borders – played by talented people like the Swedish-Bosnian-Croatian Zlatan Ibrahimovi─ç, and enjoyed by Britons of all backgrounds.
Of course, it takes time. Last week one man told the class how his attempt to buy dates at Asda led to him being told it was the 3rd February, but his ability to puzzle it out already shows how much he has learned. Hilary tells me that what her students most want to learn, once they have the essentials, is how to make small talk. ‘They want to know what to say over the garden fence, or when somebody comes to their house’, she says. ‘How to say “come in, would you like a cup of tea?”’ and also how to know when to leave a social event – how to read the signals embedded in unspoken language. Part of the problems is that Cambridge people often don’t talk to them after saying hello – not necessarily from prejudice but rather from embarrassment in advance that they won’t be understood.
‘On the whole’, Hilary believes, whatever people’s political views, most ‘do think it is important for refugees coming here to learn English’. What is needed is firstly more properly funded classes, at times that work for the refugees and with some degree of childcare, but also more community engagement. Refugees, like anyone else, want to make friends, they want to invite their neighbours round or take their kids to football matches with their schoolmates; they just need opportunities to engage.

‘I think I’ve been so lucky’, Hilary says, looking back over her career and later voluntary work. Not only does she feel she has learnt huge amounts about diverse cultures and universal human nature, but she’s had such heart-warming experiences along the way. ‘When my son went to school,’ she laughs, ‘they asked him what his mum did for a living. “Oh”, he replied, “she eats samosas and drinks tea”’. Today Hilary still gets invited round to her former students’ homes, sometimes to the weddings of the younger generation, and out to celebrate New Year at different festivals at least five times throughout the year. The lesson is that once people from different countries can communicate, they can bring so much to each other. ‘It has been such a privilege – being invited into people’s homes at such an important stage in their lives’ Hilary says with a smile. ‘They remember me and I never forget them – it’s wonderful.’

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Twickenham's Rose and Poppy Gates of Remembrance

Article first published in History Today, 12 April 2016.

‘I shall never play at Twickenham again’, twenty-five year old Lt Ronald Poulton-Palmer reportedly sighed as he lay dying at Ypres on 5 May 1915. Hit by a sniper’s bullet less than five weeks after he had been posted to the Western Front, Poulton-Palmer had served his country twice over, once in the trenches, and once as Captain of the English national rugby team. He was one of twenty-seven England international players killed during the First World War. Many more have died serving in later conflicts.

On 29 April 2016, the Rugby Football Union unveiled their stunning new Rose and Poppy Gates at Twickenham stadium, the official Home of England Rugby. Showing the symbolic metamorphosis of the English rose, as worn on the shirts of the national squad, into the remembrance poppy, the gates commemorate the sacrifice of all rugby players who have served and died in conflicts around the world. The annual Army v Navy Rugby Match took place the following day, drawing a crowd of 82,000, including many serving soldiers, veterans and their families.

The RFU’s proud association with the military is already recorded in an exhibition at the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham, which details the stories of those players who went on to serve their country in the forces. Here the 1914 England rugby union team are captured in a photograph, stripy socks pulled up, hair combed down, starched white shirts embroidered with the English rose. This unbeatable side was led by Poulton-Palmer, who scored four tries in the last test match before the war, a 39-13 victory over France. Famous for his glamorous style of play and ‘elusiveness’ on the pitch, Poulton-Palmer was hailed as one of the greatest players in the world. A third of his squad would fall alongside him during the coming conflict.

Lt Francis Oakeley, a scrum-half who won four caps for England, was killed in 1914 when his submarine, the HMS D2, disappeared in the North Sea. He was not quite twenty-four. A few months later surgeon James ‘Bungy’ Watson, who played centre, was one of 500 killed when the Royal Naval warship, HMS Hawke, was torpedoed by a German submarine. Capt. Arthur James Dingle, nick-named ‘Mud’ after the pitches of Country Durham where he learnt to play centre and wing, was exempt from military service as a serving school-master but petitioned to enlist. He died defending a trench during the Battle of Scimitar Hill at Gallipoli in August 1915. His body was never recovered. Debutant forward Robert Pillman volunteered for special duties in the Queens Own in northern France, once carrying a fellow officer who had been gassed 300 yards across no-mans land to safety. In July 1916 he was fatally wounded returning from a night-raid in Armentieres. A survivor of action in Gallipoli, Lt Alfred Maynard, hooker, was killed on the first day of the Battle of Ancre, Britain’s last push in the Somme, in November 1916. At 22, he was the youngest England international player to die in the war. Finally from that 1914 squad, Lt-Cdr Arthur Leyland Harrison was the only England rugby international to have been awarded the VC. Despite suffering severe head wounds, on regaining consciousness Harrison lost his life while leading an attack to disable German machineguns at Zeebrugge harbour in April 1918.

These men and their many colleagues are remembered in various military and sporting memorials in the UK and overseas, as well as with local plaques, benches and parish windows. Arthur Dingle has the distinction of being remembered twice in poems, once by PG Wodehouse in his mischievous English sporting send-up The Great Day, and with more reverence in John Sills The Ballad of Suvla Bay. Twickenham’s new Rose and Poppy Gates will not cite any individuals by name, they are not intended as a military memorial in that sense, but rather as commemorative sculpture that will gradually come to hold several layers of meaning and association for the players and fans that pass through them.

When artist and sculptor Harry Gray was originally approached for the commission, one idea was to create a large sculpture of an idealized young rugby player symbolically passing his ball to a First World War soldier. Gray specialises in permanent public artworks where the relationship of the work to the site is paramount. Past pieces include the Battle of Britain memorial on the south coast, which shows a young pilot, face turned to the skies, as he waits for the call to action. Seen from above, from a pilot’s perspective, the figure is sitting at the centre of a propeller hewn from the white chalk of the ground, calling to mind how the courage, skill and sacrifice of the pilots has left a permanent mark on our country. For Twickenham, Gray felt the overt memorial feel of the figurative rugby player and soldier might not sit well with a match-day crowd’s mood of exhilaration, or might be open to misinterpretation as a triumphant celebration of patriotic service on the fields of both sport and war. Instead he proposed the Rose and Poppy Gates as a less confrontational, more contemplative way to consider the Rugby Football Union’s wartime sacrifices.

Gray feels that the RFU was brave in supporting this more modern concept, but his initial designs left him dissatisfied. An early maquette looked too floral and sentimental to carry the full meaning of the loss that the gates commemorate. Having rejected the use of thorns or barbed wire in the design, Gray reconsidered the materials involved. The English roses are now produced from ‘gunmetal’ bronze, imported from Germany as Britain no longer produces it, a marker itself of how international relations have changed. Most of the poppies are fashioned from the bases of First World War German shell casements, once fired at British troops during the war, and still bearing their factory date-marks. The firing pin holes serve as the poppy centres. Each one weighs heavily in the hand. Others are simply the iconic poppy shape cut out from the metal pickets, a striking presence in their very absence. In this way German shells are turned into symbols of remembrance, their function subverted while their history is preserved. The very material of the stadium gates encapsulates messages of patriotism, conflict, loss and commemoration.

The gates’ poppy theme inevitably draws comparisons with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing one British military casualty during the First World War, which flooded the Tower of London moat, marking the centenary of the outbreak of that conflict last year. For many, this was a powerful statement about the size of Britain’s sacrifice, for others, a mawkish display of nationalism. The wonderful Ring of Remembrance Notre Dame de Lorette, an elliptical structure engraved with the names of the dead of all nationalities who fought in northern France, has proved equally controversial, but in this case for recognising the losses among belligerent nations alongside those of the Allies.

Perhaps some controversy is unavoidable. Gray believes that as war is a political act, ‘any artwork which commemorates warfare is by definition political’. For him, such installations exist essentially to provide ‘a social marker in time that uses sculpture or architecture as a holding place for memory’, and he argues that the best commemorative sculpture ‘asks questions, rather than just offering triumphalist solutions or expressions’. A recent inspiration that does just this was Turner Prize winner, and Oscar-winning director, Steve McQueen’s For Queen and Country. Created in response to a visit to Iraq in 2003 as an official war artist for the Imperial War Museum, For Queen and County was McQueen’s proposal for a set of postage stamps featuring the faces of servicemen and women who had lost their lives, with portraits chosen by their families. ‘An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in the defence of our national ideals’, McQueen contended. Collectively they would form ‘an intimate expression of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the every day – every household and every office’. Although facsimiles of the sheets of stamps are kept in the Imperial War Museum, despite the support of the fallen soldiers’ families and the Art Fund, Royal Mail has so far declined to issue the stamps. It seems that the loss presented in this way, without sentiment or compromise, appeared just too real, too great.

Some of the England rugby union players who survived the Great War, as it was once known, later went on to serve again, alongside a younger generation in the Second World War. Cyril Lowe, who was credited with nine victories while serving with the RAF, would subsequently play rugby again for England. Twickenham’s new Rose and Poppy Gates, though which both home and away teams will pass on match days, speak powerfully both of sporting and national history, and of individual loss. This is site-specific, war memorial art at its finest: beautiful, provocative, reflective, and a working part of the fabric of match life at Twickenham. Lt Ronald Poulton-Palmer and his team-mates would have been pleased; Twickenham has chosen to remember well.Perhaps some controversy is unavoidable. Gray believes that as war is a political act, ‘any artwork which commemorates warfare is by definition political’. For him, such installations exist essentially to provide ‘a social marker in time that uses sculpture or architecture as a holding place for memory’, and he argues that the best commemorative sculpture ‘asks questions, rather than just offering triumphalist solutions or expressions’. A recent inspiration that does just this was Turner Prize winner, and Oscar-winning director, Steve McQueen’s For Queen and Country. Created in response to a visit to Iraq in 2003 as an official war artist for the Imperial War Museum, For Queen and County was McQueen’s proposal for a set of postage stamps featuring the faces of servicemen and women who had lost their lives, with portraits chosen by their families. ‘An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in the defence of our national ideals’, McQueen contended. Collectively they would form ‘an intimate expression of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the every day – every household and every office’. Although facsimiles of the sheets of stamps are kept in the Imperial War Museum, despite the support of the fallen soldiers’ families and the Art Fund, Royal Mail has so far declined to issue the stamps. It seems that the loss presented in this way, without sentiment or compromise, appeared just too real, too great.

Some of the England rugby union players who survived the Great War, as it was once known, later went on to serve again, alongside a younger generation in the Second World War. Cyril Lowe, who was credited with nine victories while serving with the RAF, would subsequently play rugby again for England. Twickenham’s new Rose and Poppy Gates, though which both home and away teams will pass on match days, speak powerfully both of sporting and national history, and of individual loss. This is site-specific, war memorial art at its finest: beautiful, provocative, reflective, and a working part of the fabric of match life at Twickenham. Lt Ronald Poulton-Palmer and his team-mates would have been pleased; Twickenham has chosen to remember well.

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Friday, 25 November 2016

In praise of school libraries, and all who pass through them

I have just been delighted to help open a new Learning Centre and library at Saffron Walden County High School, in my voluntary role as the school’s Patron of Reading. It has been brilliant meeting so many of the students over the last year when giving book talks or hosting events by author friends at the school, or helping out on World Book Day and at the annual reading awards. Once I took some sixth formers to our local literary festival to hear the inspiring John McCarthy, the British journalist held captive in Lebanon for over five years, talking - among other things - about the importance of empathy and imagination. I must do more events like that. Just last week however, all past and present British children’s laureates have written a passionate open letter to the Department of Education urging an end to the cost-cutting that has led to the loss of hundreds of school librarians, so opening a new, well supported library now felt like a particular privilege and cause for celebration.

The amazing new space, with four ‘reading pods’ down the middle. 

Having been asked to prepare a few words for the opening event, I was delighted to hear author Frank Cottrell-Boyce talking about the importance of reading on a Radio 4 ‘Open Book’ podcast as I jogged around the park pondering what to say. ‘We’re living at a time when public life is being completely polluted by incredibly over-simplified narratives about who we are and what we can become’, Cottrell-Boyce said, arguing that ‘the more narratives you can have in your head’ the better. I could not agree more. When I was at school I read books to find out about the world beyond my reach, what people did, what they thought, and how they felt. Arguably film, TV and the internet are now the dominant story-telling mediums in our lives. I love all three but there is something essentially passive about the process of watching, when compared to that of reading. Film and television director Ken Loach, among others, has recently criticized the trend for TV nostalgia, and it is certainly true that, there being much more space on shelves than air-time on TV, books will always be able to offer a greater diversity of voices. And Britain’s current children’s laureate, Chris Riddell, has stressed the importance of simply ‘reading for pleasure’, while calling school libraries ‘a vital resource that must be nurtured’.

So I said this at the school, and I talked about how reading can transport you into other countries, times and contexts (the new library does look rather like a spaceship), and even into other people’s minds. As the historical author Manda Scott has said, ‘reading is the best way we have of expanding our sense of self, beyond who we are just now, of seeing who we might be, and seeing who everyone else might be as well’. Reading not only comforts and entertains us, it teaches us about the world, and it teaches us empathy - which made me think of John McCarthy once again.

In the pod with books in hand: School librarians Alex Smith and Ruth Parsons, and former headteacher John Hartley
Behind: me with current headteacher Caroline Derbyshire. Copyright: The Walden Local
The morning after the new Hartley Learning Centre (named after the school’s last headteacher), opened its doors, I ran my usual route around the park. This time I listened to John McCarthy’s fellow-hostage, Brian Keenan, talk through his ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1990, not long after his release. I thought I knew what luxury he might request after his eight records. I remember McCarthy saying that occasionally, if required to ask for some ‘luxury’ in his cell, Keenan would never request the possible, such as more food or cigarettes, but always a grand piano. It was a joke and degree of defiance that gave the men more strength than any token from their guards. But when Sue Lawley asked whether there was ‘anything, in those four and a half years, that you really craved?’ and I smiled, anticipating the piano, Keenan answered, ‘the one thing I did crave, and it was driving me to distraction, but they would not give me it, was a pencil. I just wanted to fill those walls that I’d looked at for so long, with something, and just a pencil can take you so far...’

I feel very lucky to write and review books for a living, traveling across time, place and page daily at my desk. I am also delighted to be staying on as Patron of Reading at Saffron Walden County High School for another year. As well as providing a quiet place for reading, the new Learning Centre is going to host many more author talks and events, and a student Book Club at lunchtimes. Children at this school are lucky to have such a fantastic space – yet having a library run by a professional librarian should not be question of luck, but a basic resource for every school, required and supported by the Department of Education. So here’s a shout out for school libraries; librarians, teachers and students; children’s laureates and volunteer Patrons of Reading; multiple narratives and diverse voices; the importance of empathy… and the power of pencils.

Staff and student-volunteer librarians with me, right, at the launch. 

  • If you are a writer interested in becoming a Patron of Reading at a local school, get in touch with the scheme here.
  • To read Chris Riddell’s beautifully illustrated open letter to the Department of Education, click here.
  • I’ve just submitted my latest book manuscript, so if you have a suggestion for a new subject for a historical biography, get in touch with me here!

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Sunday, 15 November 2015

Secrets of a Spy's Jewellery

Secrets of a Spy's Jewellery

As a biographer I hope to get under the skin of my subjects, to trace their emotions, hopes and attitudes, as well as their words and deeds. Often it is the smallest things that provide the most personal insights; a postscript on a letter, the view from a window, or the choice of jewellery worn.

My research into Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of the Second World War, took me to Poland. One afternoon in Warsaw I met Maria, the niece of Krystyna’s one-legged, special agent lover, Andrzej Kowerski. As well as medals, photos and papers, Maria had brought along three pieces of jewellery. The first was a red coral necklace. I imagine it being a gift to Krystyna before the war. As a rather bored countess she would often ski, sometimes smuggling cigarettes for kicks, over the high Zakopane mountains where such coral is traditionally worn. It is easy to imagine her heart pounding beneath these beads.

Then came a beautiful gold and ivory cube that unfolded into a bracelet – a love-token bought for her by Andrzej when they were both posted to Cairo during the war. Having never seen the bracelet in photographs, I wonder whether she kept it, rather like her lover, close to her only when required. The last piece was a simple wooden bangle. ‘Try them all on’, Maria urged. Sadly my wrist was too large for the bangle. For all her great courage and strong will, Krystyna must have been physically very slight.

As the beads and bracelet warmed on my skin, I thought about two other pieces of Krystyna’s jewellery that have not survived. Once, when captured in Nazi-occupied Poland, she broke the thread of a cut-glass necklace, a gift from another lover, to save her life with the precious ‘diamonds’. But the only piece of jewellery she really cared about was her family signet ring, made of gold with a slice of steel embedded in it. This she wore throughout the war, and chose to display in her only known portrait. Appropriately for such an independent, freedom-loving woman, it was not gifts from men, but her own name and honour that she chose to wear proudly. That ring is now lost, but perhaps that is fitting too. I am not sure who else could rightly wear it.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Do Bunny Down: when shared war stories can help to heal

Do Bunny Down: when shared war stories can help to heal

When researching biographies I am privileged to meet and exchange letters with many people whose observations, perspectives and actions present new insights into the past, and sometimes into the present. My current work, on two remarkable female pilots from the Second World War, has led to interviews with veterans and other witnesses from several sides of that terrible conflict. As always, many tales have emerged that have no bearing on the story I am telling – but which I cannot bear to let go unrecorded. This is the story of some USAF servicemen who crashed into an enemy field, and the young German boy who was desperate to find them...

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)
On 25 March 1945, twenty unescorted US B24 bombers were releasing their lethal load over their target when they were attacked by a set of seven of Messerschmitt Me262 jet fighters whose approach had been deliberately concealed by the glare of the sun. These pioneering machines were far faster than any Allied planes, and they were about to show how devastating they could be to heavy bombers. Their first target blew up in mid-air. Only the navigator survived after he was blown free from the nose of his B24. Crew in the other planes saw his boots suddenly jerked from his feet as his chute opened above him. He was taken POW. The lead bomber in the formation was then attacked, and tragically spiralled down into a shoe factory in the town below – loss of life unknown. The three of its crew who managed to bail out were all also captured. A third, badly damaged, bomber made it to the Swedish coastline, only to swing round and ditch into the Baltic Sea to avoid crashing into local housing. Its surviving crew were interned in neutral Sweden. 

The crew of the Do Bunny,
Charles 'Chuck' Blaney is standing, back right.
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Another plane, the Do Bunny, also took extensive damage. Having been caught in a storm of cannon shells, one engine burst into flames and had to be shut down. The attack had left no time to close the bomb-bay doors, and damage now made this impossible. Despite returning fire, the Do Bunny took several more hits, eventually leading to the loss of a second engine - with one of the propeller blades left dangling below. ‘Time seemed to stand still’, the radio operator and top gunner, S/Sgt Charles ‘Chuck’ Blaney, later wrote. ‘The flight engineer was knocked out of his top turret and he dropped to the flight deck. The plexiglass in the rear tunnel shattered in the tail gunner’s face. Fuel and hydraulic liquid from pierced pipelines were pouring and swirling out of the still open bomb bay, which we were never able to close. Do Bunny was in real trouble.’ 

Charles 'Chuck' Blaney
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Suddenly the attack ended. Perhaps the Messerschmitts were out of fuel or ammunition. Either way, forced out of formation, the Do Bunny began a slow descent while its crew threw out ‘everything that was not nailed down’ to lighten their load. When a third engine packed up it was clear that they were not going to make it the last 220 miles to friendly territory. Opting to stay together instead of bailing out, they prepared to make an emergency landing.

Down below, a class of schoolchildren in the German town of Soltau were watching the crippled plane bleeding smoke across the sky. One girl shouted out, and twelve-year-old Gerhard Bracke rushed to the window to look but, by the time he got there, the Do Bunny was already out of sight. Disappointed, Gerhard decided to search for the remains of the plane on his own, as soon as he got the chance. Lt Joachim Grauenhorst, the Wehrmacht officer in charge of the Soltau Riding Academy, had also witnessed the B24’s final descent. Surprised not to hear an explosion soon after it had passed directly over the Academy building, he quickly assembled some soldiers to find the downed plane.

Gerhard Bracke in 1944
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)
Inside the coasting Do Bunny, ‘all went well until a wing dipped into the ground as we lost speed,’ Blaney wrote, ‘and then all hell let loose’. The torn, burnt and battered B24, riddled with hundreds of bullet holes, broke apart on impact. Miraculously five of the nine crew managed to jump to safety. It was not long before they were joined some scared and angry locals, some carrying pitchforks, followed by Grauenhorst and his soldiers who kept the crowd back while they began working to free the last four of the crew still trapped inside the wreckage. Incredibly, despite injuries including a broken leg, none of them had been killed.

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)

The prisoners were escorted to the town square. Here two SS officers started building up the growing crowd’s resentment against the Americans as an enemy bomber crew. It was probably only because Grauenhorst had command of several soldiers that, after some tense moments, he was able to take the men back to the Riding Academy under his command. Here they were locked in the stables, partly for their own safety. ‘He probably saved all our lives’ Blaney believes.

Lt Joachim Grauenhorst
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney) 
A passionate member of the Hitler Youth, Gerhard was keen to learn everything about the downed B24 and the enemy soldiers being held at the Academy. After school that afternoon he went exploring until he found the crash site. There he stood in awed fascination, looking at the wreck with its crushed nose, splintered fuselage and open bomb-bay doors which were now cut into the ground. It was a seminal moment for the impressionable boy, and he stayed for a long time.

The next morning the Do Bunny’s crew were driven to an interrogation centre, and started the long journey to a prison camp. They were liberated by the Russians in late May 1945.

Gerhard was still a schoolboy when the Second World War ended. He grew up to become a respected biographer and historian of the war. During our conversations, he not only told me about the downing of the Do Bunny, but of a rather wonderful postscript to the story.

Many years after the war, Gerhard spent some time researching what had happened to the Americans who had so miraculously survived the Luftwaffe attack and their own crash landing. Having tracked down Chuck Blaney and the other surviving crew members, he arranged a 50th anniversary reunion. In 1995 he travelled to Ohio, USA, to join them. With him, Gerhard brought a biography of the Luftwaffe pilot who had shot them down. Fighter pilot Ace Lt Rudolf Rademacher had survived the war only to die in a glider crash in 1953. Gerhard had also found the archived ‘missing crew’ reports from the other B24 bombers in the formation, and old photographs of the destroyed Do Bunny from the Soltau local newspaper. But what touched Chuck Blaney most was the warm personal letter Gerhard brought from Joachim Grauenhorst of the Soltau Riding Academy, along with an invitation from the Mayor of Soltau to a reunion in their town the following year.

Soltau newspaper coverage, 1995
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Former enemies, Gerhard and Chuck are in touch to this day. 'He is still a best friend forever', Chuck told me touchingly of Gerhard. Both men were pleased that there is continued interest in their story, and that it might now reach a new audience. Sometimes, when certain people find themselves acting for, or representing, one side of history or another, it appears that time, rather than ideologies or national boundaries, is the greatest barrier. How awful it is, among the many terrible tragedies of the war, that a German shoe factory was hit by a downed American bomber, and that so many airmen lost their lives altogether. But how uplifting that one young witness to history was compelled to restore the common bonds of humanity between people once torn apart.

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Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Distinction or Discrimination: Honouring the female special agents of the Second World War

The names of 75 courageous women from 13 nations are etched into a beautiful memorial at RAF Tempsford,   home of the Special Duties Squadrons during the Second World War. These are the female special agents who volunteered for active service behind enemy lines as couriers and wireless operators, running escape lines and leading partisan armies. All were brave, and all deeply committed to the Allied cause, but they had little else in common. Although most were British or French, there were also women from the Soviet Union, Belgium, The Netherlands, Ireland, America, Switzerland, India, Australia and Chile, as well as two from Germany, sent in to support the domestic resistance, and two from Poland, including Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the subject of my last biography. Some were lucky, others not, many were beautiful which had its own pros and cons, some were plain, and one had a prosthetic leg. Most female agents were effective, at least for a short while, and Skarbek survived in active service for six years. The huge contribution of this diverse group of women came at a high price. 29 were arrested and 16 executed. One more chose suicide with her lethal ‘L’ pill.

Some of the names on the Tempsford Memorial
Today there is increasing interest in these women. Over the last few years there have been many new biographies and anthologies about them and several memorials. Tempsford is important in that it is the only one that pays tribute to all the women by name. Its marble column stands on a granite plinth collectively honouring the two special duties squadrons that flew them into enemy occupied Europe, but there is no reference to the male agents. Perhaps now we need to ask why is it that we still distinguish heroines from heroes. After all, the Special Operations Executive, better known as SOE, was in many ways a great gender leveller. Selected women and men went through the same training, including in the use of guns and explosives, and silent killing, and were armed and sent to work alongside each other in the field.

It was, however, precisely because they were women, that these female agents were so valuable during the war. Unlike able-bodied men, civilian women travelling around France by train or bicycle attracted relatively little attention. This meant they were better-placed to serve as couriers between different resistance circuits or groups of Maquis hiding in the hills. Women transported messages, micro-film and radio codes, as well as heavy equipment such as weapons and wireless transmitters to arrange the delivery of agents and equipment, etc. Some of them, notably Pearl Witherington and Nancy Wake, went much further, commanding resistance armies of 2,000 men, and, among other achievements, Skarbek persuaded a German garrison on a strategic pass in the Alps to defect.

Skarbek, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent, was employed in December 1939. Eighteen months would pass, during which time she served both across Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, before SOE was even officially established. The first female covert radio operator to be flown into France, Noor Inayat Khan, left England in June 1943. Even at this point, women in the British military were not officially allowed to carry guns or explosives. To circumvent this, SOE enrolled women into the FANYs, which officially operated outside of the Armed Forces but still theoretically offered some protection under the Geneva Convention in the event of capture, and provided pensions should the women become casualties.

Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville,
courtesy of Christine Isabelle Cole, Bill Stanley Moss papers
Churchill had approved the employment of women in SOE, but their role was not made public until some time after the war for fear of a backlash. Meanwhile the women who had survived found their achievements were underplayed and their skills undervalued. While Skarbek’s male colleagues were reassigned to roles overseas, after she turned down a series of secretarial jobs for which she was monumentally unsuited, Skarbek was dismissed as ‘not a very easy person to employ’. Meanwhile the official papers sent to her were accompanied by belittling notes such as ‘Hope you are being a good girl!’ Even the honours the women received were less than their male counterparts, as women did not qualify for British military awards. Many felt bitter about this, but none expressed it as succinctly as Pearl Witherington. After being awarded the MBE (Civil), she famously commented that ‘there was nothing civil’ about the work she had undertaken.

It was only in the 1950s that the women’s stories began to be told. Having signed the official secrets act, many of the women, like the men they served with, refused to talk. Others, such as Odette Hallowes, spoke out, or like both Hallowes and Violette Szabo who had been executed at Ravensbr├╝ck, had their stories retold in biographies and films. And so the myth-making began. All too often, female agents and other women in the resistance have been honoured more for their courage and great sacrifice, than for their actual achievements. It has been judged more important that they tried, than that they succeeded. When the women did achieve, they still seem to have been feminised in the retelling, their beauty and sacrifices emphasised and their rough edges smoothed over. In order to be celebrated they have been, in effect, often recast as victims, rather than simply as heroes.

Ironically perhaps, today we need to reconsider the female special agents not only because historically they were marginalised but because, all too often, when given attention they have been judged as women, rather than as individuals doing an extraordinary job. If you have been the business of special operations, it is clearly self-defeating to be elevated as a heroine if at the same time you are diminished as an independent agent.

courtesy of Pawel Komorowski

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