Monday, 29 December 2014

Blue Plaque-tastic!

This week I was thrilled to learn that Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the Second World War, and the subject of my last biography, The Spy Who Loved, has been short-listed for a blue plaque in London. English Heritage, who run the scheme, have not confirmed the date or location yet, but have said that I may spread the word. I find it hard to imagine that anyone would not be pleased to have their building associated with such a heroine, so hopefully I will have good news soon, but these things are never guaranteed…

'Blue Plaques' is the title of the last chapter of my first book, The Woman Who Saved the Children, a biography of Eglantyne Jebb, the inspirational founder of Save the Children. In it I looked at all the memorials that have gone up to this remarkable woman. These include a community sports hall in her home-town of Ellesmere in Shropshire, the thriving village of Xheba in Albania, an English rose, and one of the better-known dogs belonging to HRH, The Princess Royal, Princess Anne - the Princess is the President of Save the Children, and one of many to admire the charity’s founder.

The Eglantyne Jebb memorial lamp
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
Eglantyne had a wonderfully dark sense of humour, and I think that this rather eclectic assortment or memorials would have amused her. As would the glass chandelier that hangs in the chapel of Lady Margaret Hall, the Oxford college where she had once read history. Each pendant is in the shape of a ‘white flame’, reflecting the nickname that she had earned for her burning passion for her work, as well as for her prematurely white hair. The chandelier was paid for by subscription among Eglantyne’s former college friends, but it has always amused me that among her papers I found a letter that Eglantyne wrote to her mother during her college days, bemoaning the dullness of her fellow students. If the new intake were as tedious next year, she joked, she would liven things up by putting a bomb in the chapel. And now she is remembered there with this very pleasant, if not wildly exciting, glass chandelier.

Blueprint for the memorial seat to Eglantyne Jebb
After Eglantyne’s death in 1928, blueprints were also produced for a stone bench, featuring Save the Children’s original logo, the swaddled babe, to be placed at the top of Mount Saleve outside Geneva in Switzerland. Eglantyne spent her last ten years in Geneva establishing the International Save the Children Alliance, and developing the five-point statement of children’s universal human rights that has now been enshrined as the United National Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history. Permission was given for the bench, but when Eglantyne’s sister, Dorothy, discovered how expensive it would be, all donations were reallocated to support children in need in Ethiopia instead. No doubt Eglantyne would have approved.


Of course Eglantyne’s real legacy is not a stone bench, a sports hall, or glass chandelier; it is the wonderful work of Save the Children, saving the lives and improving the life chances of millions of children every day, and the value of the UN Convention, by which institutions, and even governments, may be held to account. However, I was delighted a few years ago when a Blue Plaque was put up at 82 Regent Street, in Cambridge, to mark the building where Eglantyne once worked for a local charity. 


Eglantyne's blue plaque
before it was mounted at 82 Regent Street, Cambridge
The photo above shows Eglantyne’s Blue Plaque, with her dates being pointed out by her great, great, great nephew - who was marvelous at the event, suggesting we used it as an opportunity to raise some funds for the charity. He himself brought some pumpkin seeds to sell, which I duly bought and potted out with my own children. I am afraid to say that the seeds grew into marrows, so he may be considered a swindler, but absolutely the nicest I have met.

So it was with great disappointment that I learned recently that Eglantyne’s blue plaque has been removed. The building has been sold and the developers feel it reduces the value of the site! Save the Children has certainly had a bad couple of weeks since the US arm of the organisation decided to award their annual ‘global legacy’ prize to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for his work tackling child poverty while in office. During this time Blair led the G8 nations at Gleneagles to agree to a doubling of aid to Africa, debt cancellation and universal access to Aids treatment. However, Blair’s public legacy has since been overshadowed by his role taking Britain to war in Iraq, actions that Save the Children UK strongly opposed at the time. Hundreds of the UK staff, and thousands of others, have called for the prize to be rescinded, and meanwhile the charity, its many supporters and, most importantly, the children assisted by projects around the world, are facing a serious crisis in terms of support. However, I doubt that this is what the Cambridge developers were concerned about.

Blue plaques are street signposts that operate in another dimension. Instead of showing the way to the motorway or market, they point back in time to the special agent or humanitarian who once lived or worked in that spot – stories that enrich us all as we pass by. I will keep working to try and get Eglantyne Jebb’s plaque replaced. Perhaps the owner of the building opposite might let us project an image of a plaque across the street? Or, once the building is sold again, we might have better luck with the new owners. I will also be keeping my fingers crossed for Christine Granville’s proposed plaque to make it through the final stages at English Heritage.






In the meantime I was hugely cheered to see this 'blue plaque' sticker, marking the door of the flat where the History Girl bloggers met for our Christmas party last week - and it was reproduced on one of the cakes too! With signs like these still being made and appreciated, I feel there is hope yet for Eglantyne’s plaque!


Similar Posts

Friday, 21 November 2014

Lest We Forget

There has been much in the press this month about Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the impressive art installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing one British military casualty during the First world War, that flooded the Tower of London moat earlier this month. For many this was a beautiful and powerful statement of 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 in northern France, is another powerful but controversial war memorial. The who, what, how and why may be contentious, but what is generally agreed upon is the importance of remembering.

A while ago I was due to give a talk on the female special agents of the Second World War at Maddingley Hall, near Cambridge. En route I stopped to admire the beautiful stonework outside and bumped into a man doing the same thing. It transpired that he was Harry Gray, the stonemason, now artist, who had carved some of the pieces during restoration works several years ago. We soon discovered a shared interest in the two world wars, and fascination with the very different ways that the dead are remembered and, on occasion, honoured. A few weeks later Harry invited me, and my husband Ian, who is a sculptor, over to his studio for lunch.

Harry explaining that the foliage on Corinthian columns
are acanthus leaves, with leaf from his garden.
It turned out that Harry has worked on a number of war monuments and memorials, among other public art commissions. His first was the much admired frieze for the Animals at War memorial in Park Lane, but my favourite is the stunning Battle of Britain monument at the White Cliffs of Dover.

Approached from the ground, the Battle of Britain monument shows a young pilot, sitting, looking to the skies, calmly waiting for his call to action. Seen from above, however, from a pilot’s perspective, the figure is sitting at the centre of a propeller hewn from the white chalk of the ground. It is a beautiful and thought-provoking design that literally works on several levels, calling into question not just who these men were and what they were fighting for, but how their courage, skill and sacrifice has left a permanent mark on our country.

Pilot from the Battle of Britain monument
Battle of Britain monument from the air
Harry had only heard about the proposal for a Battle of Britain monument when he was commissioned to produce the stone base for the winning piece. Having rather cheekily asked if he could submit his own design, he was delighted to get through to the short list. Lord Tebbit, himself a former RAF pilot, was on the judging panel, and when he saw that Harry’s pilot figure was to be hewn from Forest of Dean sandstone his only comment was that it would weather badly. Harry protested that London pavements are made from sandstone, and ultimately it was Tebbit who backed his design. The Queen Mother unveiled the monument in July 1993. Earlier that day Harry had been checking everything was as it should be when he was surprised to see a woman let through the security cordons to join him at the monument statue. “At last,” she told him, “You’ve made my brother’s grave”. Her brother had fought in one of the Polish squadrons in the Battle of Britain, and had been lost over the channel. 

Harry has since won many public commissions, and you can visit his website here. The current piece that speaks most loudly to me is his project for a public artwork to celebrate William ‘Bill’ Tutte’s code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Coded signals intercepted by Bletchey Park were printed as perforated tape, or ‘Baudot’ code. Reflecting this, Harry is producing a sculpture comprising of five steel sheets each of which are perforated like Baudot code.

Baudot code
Harry's 'coded' metal sheets
When seen from a key viewpoint marked in the paving, the perforations reveal an image of Bill Tutte through the metal sheets. In this way the portrait image itself is encoded, with Baudot in place of DNA, showing people the essence of the man in face and form. 

Bill Tutte, reduced to dots as a guide
Three of the six sample sheets for the memorial
I live in Saffron Walden, within walking distance of beautiful Audley End House which was used during the Second World War as a training base by the Cichociemni, the ‘Silent and Unseen’ Polish special forces. It has always amused me that my last biography was of one of the very few Polish-born special agents, Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, who never set foot in Audley End because she was trained and employed directly by the British. Nevertheless I am honoured that over the last few years I have been invited to lay a wreath for both Krystyna and the Cichociemni at our local war memorial on Remembrance Sunday. 

The Cichociemni are commemorated with a stone urn in the grounds of Audley End house, but I have often thought that it would be wonderful to have a more permanent memorial to Krystyna somewhere in Britain. I wonder now if it should be made from Polish soil, or how else to best capture the spirit of this passionate patriot and fighter for freedom. But then, perhaps writing biographies has its similarities with Harry's kind of art, in seeking to capture and present a picture of their subject that is more than skin deep?

I was appalled to hear this month that cuts to the Imperial War Museum budget mean that access to the library and archives, which were hugely important during my research for Krystyna's biography, is now going to be severely restricted if not closed, and the school education packages may be stopped. I find it incredible that, at this time of remembrance in particular, we can even consider risking losing one of the most important repositories of these stories. If you feel the same, please take a moment to sign the petition against these cuts, so that we can continue to remember, honour and consider, in an informed way.


Similar Posts

Monday, 27 October 2014

Finding truth in facts and fictions

As I understand it, biography is about finding out the truth about people and reporting back. This seems perfect work for me, as I am naturally nosy about - let’s say interested in - people and the world in which we live. However I quickly discovered that researching the life of a secret agent, as I did for my last biography, The Spy Who Loved, contains inherent difficulties. Many official and unofficial papers relating to Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of the war, have been destroyed - on accident or by purpose - while others may remain unreleased. Furthermore agents like Christine were trained to cover their tracks, and not leave a paper trail. Christine certainly kept few records. Until I started my research there were only a couple of letters known to have been written by her.

Letter from Christine Granville to Harold Perkins, March 1945
The letter above is kept at the National Archives. It was written in March 1945 to Christine's SOE boss, Harold Perkins. Here she is volunteering desperately for a final mission:

 ‘For God’s sake do not strike my name from the firm [SOE]… remember that I am always too pleased to go and do anything for it. May be you find out that I could be useful getting people out from camps and prisons in Germany just before they get shot. I should love to do it and I like to jump out of a plane even every day’.

I laughed when I read this, thinking at first that Christine was joking – but, no, she was absolutely sincere. When this letter was written, she had already given five years of voluntary service, repeatedly working behind enemy lines at huge risk to her life. Her desperate request here tells us so much about her, her determination, her love for action and service and, above all, her courage.

But letters, so wonderful at preserving the evidence of that most intangible thing, emotion, are notoriously unreliable for facts. Letters are often full of mistakes, opinion rather than fact, or attempts to mislead. During my research I found many more letters to and from Christine, and what I discovered was that while the facts often did not add up, Christine’s character did: she loved to tell a good story.

'Let Gold Eat Gold', courtesy of Countess M Skarbek 
Stories were always an important part of Christine’s life. Her father, Count Jerzy Skarbek, had brought her up with proud Skarbek family stories intertwined with patriotic Polish history. The etching above illustrated one of these stories, when the first Count Skarbek (with outstretched arm, right) refused to bow before a German Emperor (seated). Scorning the coffers of riches he was shown to try to buy his loyalty, the Count took off his own signet ring and threw it in the chest declaring ‘Let gold eat gold, we Poles trust our steel’, meaning their swords. He later helped rout the invading German mercenary forces. Listening to her father tell this tale, and many others, Christine quickly learnt how stories could be used for propaganda!

As a special agent Christine would later use her own stories to effectively cloud the details of her activities or motivations. I came across several versions of the same, wonderful story about her flirtatiously securing the unwitting help of a Wehrmacht officer to smuggle clandestine documents through train checkpoints in occupied Poland. Intriguingly however, in each version, the departure and destination train-stations were different. Perhaps Christine sensibly wished to keep her precise movements hidden, even years later. Certainly duty had required her to frequently change her name and identity, and arguably also her age and date of birth: fictions were part of her life.

Sometimes, however, Christine simply seemed to enjoy not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story. This might explain some of the more colourful reports I found of her parachute descent into France in the summer of 1944. In his memoirs, Patrick Howarth, an SOE colleague, wrote that Christine indulged ‘in the most outrageous fantasies when talking to people to whom she was not disposed to take seriously'. Who can blame her? But the net result was that it was sometimes difficult for me to distinguish fact from fiction.

Me, in front of Christine's childhood home, Trzepnica
To try to get to the bottom of things, I decided to retrace Christine’s steps, gathering evidence on the way - a process that Antonia Fraser calls ‘optical research’. First stop was Poland. The photo above shows me in front of Christine’s childhood home, Trzepnica, about an hour from Warsaw. It was wonderful to walk on Christine’s lawns, see the vast oak trees she loved, the house and the stables. My kind friend Maciek, who had come with me to translate, even managed to find the key to this now derelict building, so that we could look around inside.

As you can imagine, I got very excited and took photos of everything. At one point Maciek asked me why I was taking a shot of a blue plaque on the outside wall. ‘You never know what secrets it might hold’ I said in jubilation'. ‘It says…’ said Maciek dryly, ‘Please don’t play football on the grass.’

From Trzepnica we went on to Warsaw, where Maciek stayed with his aunt while I was lucky enough to have the use of a beautiful flat in the restored old town that belongs to Jan Ledochowski, the son of Count Wladimir Ledochowski, one of Christine’s close friends from the Polish resistance.

One morning I came out of the flat at 9am to meet Maciek and head off to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, in search of more facts. As I emerged into the morning light a Wehrmacht officer in full uniform started shouting at me. Then he charged up and started jabbing at me with the perforated barrel of his hand-held machine gun. It was one of the most frightening experiences I have ever had. At first I thought, ‘OMG, I have just been arrested by the Wehrmacht’. Then I thought, ‘OMG, I have just completely lost my marbles’. Luckily Maciek soon arrived and managed to straighten things out. It turned out that, not understanding the polite Polish notice put through the door, I had walked into the middle of filming for a Polish WWII drama, ruining the take. But even this bit of fiction taught me something. I knew, rationally, that it must be something like TV filming, but I was still nearly crying to see that gun waved near my head. Christine, who was working for the British secret services, and was part-Jewish, was arrested several times behind enemy lines during the war, and always kept her cool, managing to talk her way out of danger more than once. Nothing could have brought home more clearly to me just how courageous this woman was, and what sang froid she had.

Polish TV WWI drama being filmed
Among my primary sources for my last book were reports, awards and certificates held in British, Polish and French archives, and various public and private collections. These things all helped to build up a clear picture of when Christine worked where. But the fact is that there are emotional, as well as factual, truths. A good biography will reveal why people acted as they did, how they felt and what they believed, and ‘the truth’ - or perhaps I should say ‘the many truths’ - of someone, must be found in both the facts and the fictions of their lives.


Similar Posts

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

On Hide and Seek

This month The Folio Society republished one of the great memoirs of the Second World War: Xan Fielding’s Hide and Seek. Described by Antony Beevor as, ‘one of the great modern books not just of the Cretan resistance; it is one of the great books of the Second World War’, Hide and Seek recounts with powerful immediacy, humour and unsparing honesty the drama, tedium, exhilaration and anguish of organising reconnaissance and resistance behind enemy lines on Crete.

The new Folio edition of Xan Fielding’s Hide and Seek
I first read Hide and Seek when I was researching my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the war. Christine had saved Xan’s life, at huge personal risk, in the summer of 1944 while they were both serving in occupied France. Xan never forgot his debt, and dedicated Hide and Seek to Christine’s memory, so I was thrilled when The Folio Society asked me to write the introduction for their new edition of the book. I now had the chance to look more deeply into the other side of the story, reading around Xan’s life and talking to many people who knew him.

In my experience the people connected with an extraordinary character, such as Christine Granville or Xan Fielding, have been unfailingly generous with their time, papers, photos and stories. Xan had many remarkable friends, from Paddy Leigh Fermor and Bill Stanley Moss, both of whom also served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Crete, to Laurence Durrell, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Millar, Dirk Bogarde and Lucien Freud. Friends, children, and children-of-friends, kindly shared stories with me over sandwiches, or over the internet.

Anecdotes covered everything from Freud’s dead monkey, which was apparently usually kept in his fridge but eventually decomposed when left forgotten in his studio, to Daphne Fielding’s budgerigar, the only creature allowed near Xan’s Remington typewriter, as it ‘delighted in the ping of the bell at the end of each line which heralded an exciting struggle to maintain balance as the roller rotated and carriage whizzed back’. I learnt of revealing private dedications hidden penned inside personal copies of Hide and Seek, and discovered the wonderful advert Xan placed in The Times, when he was seeking work in 1950: ‘Tough but sensitive ex-classical scholar, ex-secret agent, ex-guerrilla leader, 31, recently reduced to penury through incompatibility with post-war world… Would do anything unreasonable and unexpected if sufficiently rewarding and legitimate.’ There are, of course, many wonderful stories, and you can read more of them in my introduction to the Folio edition of Hide and Seek.

Reproduction of SOE map of Crete, annotated by Paddy Leigh Fermor and included in the new Folio edition of Hide and Seek
Besides the stories of this remarkable group of friends I also found – and this is a first – the editorial issues fascinating! I wanted to see the manuscript that Folio was using so that I could page reference my quotes, but here was another issue… Hide and Seek was first published in 1954. Xan wrote from his wartime notebooks – a collection only missing the one volume inconsiderately eaten by Cretan pigs in 1942 – and the book is refreshingly immediate. But in the 1980s he had sat down with Paddy to amend the manuscript for a new Greek-language edition. They removed a few offensive phrases that had not dated well, and modified some of the less flattering character portraits, but Xan did not seem happy with the process.

With admirable diligence Folio tracked down Paddy and Xan’s revisions and set to work deciding which version of the manuscript to print. In the end, being, their editor told me, ‘very conscious of… the risk of tearing the fabric of the text’, they made very few editorial interventions to the original manuscript. As a result, in this edition Xan again speaks his mind freely, vividly expressing his not-uncritical love for the place and people of Crete, as well as the fierce anger he felt at much of the conduct of the war.

Hide and Seek is not the only one of Xan’s books to have been republished recently, nor is The Folio Society the only publisher interested in this rich seam of war memoir. Paul Dry Books republished this and his other Cretan book, The Stronghold, last year, as well as, in 2010, Bill Stanley Moss’s Ill Met By Moonlit, the account of his and Paddy’s kidnapping of the German General of the island that was later made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde. (Xan had been otherwise engaged, and also too dark-skinned to pass as the requisite ‘Aryan’ German officer, so did not take part in that exploit, but some years later he did serve as advisor during filming, lending his own clothes to Bogarde to give an air of authenticity. Striding around in chinos and espadrilles, apparently Xan was amused to overhear Bogarde’s dresser describe him as still looking, ‘like a fucking little killer’.) Moss’s other book, A War of Shadows, was also republished, by Bene Factum Publishing, earlier this year, and Paddy Leigh Fermor’s previously unpublished account of the kidnapping, ‘Abducting a General’ will soon be published by John Murray, while Bloomsbury has just signed up a new account of the same incident by Rick Stroud. Both Paddy and Bill Stanley Moss also knew Christine Granville in war-time Egypt, and Bill and his Polish wife, Zofia Tarnowska, later named their daughter Christine in her honour.

When I write a biography I am always sadly aware of all the fabulous stories that I cannot include, and the incidental but remarkable characters that there is no room to develop although they are often fully deserving of biographies of their own. So I am delighted to have been able to contribute to this Folio edition of Hide and Seek, and even more so that Folio has also added lots of new photos, a pull-out reproduction of his and Paddy’s SOE map of Crete, along with some of Xan’s previously unpublished correspondence, making it a really terrific new edition.

It turns out that manuscripts also have lives of their own, with hidden stories, strategic translations and freshly edited republications and, as with people, it is only a matter of judgement which versions are the most authentic, which voice most true, and which should be remembered or retold.


Similar Posts

Monday, 29 September 2014

Women of the Warsaw Uprising

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Warsaw Uprising. By the summer of 1944 the tide of the Second World War had turned. The Soviets, now Allies, had reversed the German advance, and France was fighting towards liberation. Sensing change, the Polish government-in-exile authorized their highly organised resistance ‘Home Army’ to rise up against the extremely brutal Nazi forces occupying their capital.

On the 1st August thousands of Polish men, women and children launched a coordinated attack. The Poles had faced invasion on two fronts at the start of the war, and were well aware of the dual threat to their independence. Their aim now was to liberate Warsaw from the Nazis so that they could welcome the advancing Soviet Army as free, or at least fighting, citizens. Moscow radio had appealed to the Poles to take action, but the Red Army then deliberately waited within hearing distance for the ensuing conflict to decimate the Polish resistance before making their own entry. The Warsaw Uprising is remembered as one of the most courageous resistance actions of the Second World War, but also one of the most tragic.

Gravestone of a female resistance fighter,
Powąnski Cemetery, Warsaw.
(Copyright Clare Mulley)
A couple of years ago I travelled to Warsaw to research my last book, The Spy Who Loved, a biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the Polish-born Countess who became Britain’s first female special agent of the war. While there I visited the famous Powąski cemetery where many of Krystyna’s family are buried, along with (parts of) Chopin and other famous Poles. Walking around I was very struck by several memorials like the one above, which shows how a Polish woman who died in 1999 chose to be remembered – fighting for the freedom of her country fifty-five years earlier.

To her despair, Krystyna Skarbek, then stationed in Italy, was not able to join her compatriots during the Warsaw Uprising. However I was honoured to meet one of the female veterans of the conflict at an event at the Polish Embassy earlier this year. A few months later I had the pleasure of meeting her again at her north London home, where she generously shared her memories of the uprising with me over a cup of strong coffee and some delicious Polish pastries.

Hanna and me at the Polish Embassy earlier this year.
(Copyright Clare Mulley)
Hanna Koscia, as she is now, was just sixteen when she was attached to a Home Army first aid team in the centre of Warsaw. Her role included nursing, and fetching supplies and the injured, sometimes while under fire. On one occasion her life was saved when the wounded female fighter she was carrying took the full force of the fire directed at them. The soldier died an hour later, a moment Hanna will never forget. Another time she was sent out alone to collect some glass bottles of methylated spirits from the city Polytechnic, to serve as basic antiseptic. Climbing back through the ruins she was caught in a bombing raid. Flying debris smashed one bottle, and Hanna felt the meths soak her shirt. A moment later incendiaries started to fall. ‘At that point I realized I was going to die’ Hanna told me, adding quietly, ‘I was a bit afraid, but not much’. Incredibly, Hanna survived the conflict, becoming one of the first female POWs detained in a camp in Germany. To her delight, she was finally liberated by Polish soldiers in May 1945. 

Polish Home Army white and red armband,
courtesy of The Warsaw Rising Museum
Despite the heroism of the Warsaw Uprising, it is a conflict still not well known outside Poland. So I am thrilled that Hanna’s story has been published in full in this month’s issue of History Today magazine. Furthermore there are some wonderful new resources being launched to mark the 70th anniversary of the conflict. Two films in particular stand out:

- Powstanie Warszawskie (Warsaw Uprising) is the world's first feature film to be made entirely from authentic newsreels. The Home Army had commissioned reporters and cameramen to record the conflict during August 1944. It is this footage that has now been colourised and assembled to retell the story of the uprising. You can watch a trailer for this powerful film here:

- Portret Żołnierza (Portrait of a Soldier) is an independent documentary directed and produced by Marianna Bukowski. Marianna spent many hours interviewing her friend Wanda Traczyk-Stawska who, as a 16-year-old girl, fought as a Home Army soldier. While watching some of the original footage from the uprising, Marianna was deeply moved to see Wanda firing her ‘Lightning’ gun during the conflict. Her intimate and very personal film explores Wanda’s story, asking what makes a teenage girl choose to become a soldier. Although currently still in post-production, more information can be read here.

- I am also looking forward to reading a new book on the conflict, Warsaw 44 by Alexandra Richie, a critically acclaimed author whose father-in-law is a veteran of the Uprising.

The Warsaw Rising was fought over 63 days between 1st August and 2nd October 1944. An estimated 18,000 Polish insurgents lost their lives, as well as between 180-200,000 civilians – many during the mass executions conducted by the Nazi German troops in reprisals. On a private visit to Krystyna Skarbek’s grave earlier this year, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski emphasized to me that the Home Army commanders were counting on the rapid advance of the Soviet army into the city when they took their decision to rise up. For Wanda Traczyk-Stawska and Hanna Koscia however, the fight was more personal than strategic. ‘We were children of the occupation – we wanted to be free and it was for this freedom that we fought so fiercely’, Wanda told Marianna Bukowski. Hanna was equally clear about her own motivations, telling me, ‘you have to understand how many people had already been killed, what the view was ahead of us… the reality of the situation was that you can’t give up when there is no good alternative for yourself or for others… We just simply had to fight’.


Similar Posts

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Hide and Seek

This month The Folio Society republished one of the great memoirs of the Second World War; Xan Fielding’s Hide & Seek. Described by Antony Beevor as, ‘one of the great modern books not just of the Cretan resistance; it is one of the great books of the Second World War’, Hide & Seek recounts with powerful immediacy, humour and unsparing honesty the drama, tedium, exhilaration and anguish of organising reconnaissance and resistance behind enemy lines on Crete.

The Folio Society's new edition of 
Xan Fielding's Hide & Seek,
courtesy of The Folio Society
I first read Hide & Seek when I was researching my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the war. Christine had saved Xan’s life, at huge personal risk, in the summer 1944 while they were both serving in occupied France. Xan never forgot his debt, and dedicated Hide & Seek to Christine’s memory, so I was thrilled when Folio asked me to write the introduction for their new edition of the book. I now had the chance to look more deeply into the other side of the story, reading around Xan’s life and talking to many people who knew him.

In my experience the people connected with an extraordinary character, such as Christine Granville or Xan Fielding, have been unfailingly generous with their time, papers, photos and stories. Xan had many remarkable friends, from Paddy Leigh Fermor and Bill Stanley Moss, both of whom also served with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Crete, to Laurence Durrell, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Millar, Dirk Bogarde and Lucien Freud. Friends, children, and children-of-friends, kindly shared stories with me over sandwiches, or over the internet.

Anecdotes covered everything from Freud’s dead monkey, which was apparently usually kept in his fridge but eventually decomposed when left forgotten in his studio, to Daphne Fielding’s budgerigar, the only creature allowed near Xan’s Remington typewriter, as it ‘delighted in the ping of the bell at the end of each line which heralded an exciting struggle to maintain balance as the roller rotated and carriage whizzed back’. I learnt of revealing private dedications hidden penned inside personal copies of Hide & Seek, and discovered the wonderful advert Xan placed in The Times, when he was seeking work in 1950: ‘Tough but sensitive ex-classical scholar, ex-secret agent, ex-guerrilla leader, 31, recently reduced to penury through incompatibility with post-war world… Would do anything unreasonable and unexpected if sufficiently rewarding and legitimate’. There are, of course, many wonderful stories, and you can read more of them in my introduction to the Folio edition of Hide & Seek.

Paddy Leigh Fermor with Xan Fielding
courtesy of The National Library of Scotland
Besides the stories of this remarkable group of friends I also found - and this is a first – the editorial issues fascinating! I wanted to see the manuscript that Folio was using so that I could page reference my quotes, but here was another issue... Hide & Seek was first published in 1954. Xan wrote from his wartime notebooks - a collection only missing the one volume inconsiderately eaten by Cretan pigs in 1942 - and the book is refreshingly immediate. But in the 1980s he had sat down with Paddy to amend the manuscript for a new Greek-language edition. They removed a few offensive phrases that had not dated well, and modified some of the less flattering character portraits, but Xan did not seem happy with the process.

With admirable diligence Folio tracked down Paddy and Xan’s revisions and set to work deciding which version of the manuscript to print. In the end, being, their editor told me, ‘very conscious of… the risk of tearing the fabric of the text’, they made very few editorial interventions to the original manuscript. As a result, in this edition Xan again speaks his mind freely, vividly expressing his not-uncritical love for the place and people of Crete, as well as the fierce anger he felt at much of the conduct of the war.

Reproduction SOE map of Crete, annotated by Paddy Leigh Fermor
and included in the new Folio edition of Hide & Seek,
courtesy of The Folio Society
Hide & Seek is not the only one of Xan’s books to have been republished recently, nor is The Folio Society the only publisher interested in this rich seam of war memoir. Paul Dry Books republished this and his other Cretan book, The Stronghold, last year, as well as, in 2010, Bill Stanley Moss’s Ill Met By Moonlit, the account of his and Paddy’s kidnapping of the German General of the island that was later made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde. (Xan had been otherwise engaged, and also too dark-skinned to pass as the requisite ‘Aryan’ German officer, so did not take part in that exploit, but some years later he did serve as advisor during filming, lending his own clothes to Bogarde to give an air of authenticity. Striding around in chinos and espadrilles, apparently Xan was amused to overhear Bogarde’s dresser describe him as still looking, ‘like a fucking little killer’.) Moss’s other book, A War of Shadows, was also republished, by Bene Factum Publishing, earlier this year, and Paddy Leigh Fermor's previously unpublished account of the kidnapping, 'Abducting a General' will soon be published by John Murray, while Bloomsbury has just signed up a new account of the same incident by Rick Stroud. Both Paddy and Bill Stanley Moss also knew Christine Granville in war-time Egypt, and Bill and his Polish wife, Zofia Tarnowska, later named their daughter Christine in her honour.

When I write a biography I am always sadly aware of all the fabulous stories that I cannot include, and the incidental but remarkable characters that there is no room to develop although they are often fully deserving of biographies of their own. So I am delighted to have been able to contribute to this Folio edition of Hide & Seek, and even more so that Folio has also added lots of new photos, a pull-out reproduction of his and Paddy's SOE map of Crete, along with some of Xan's previously unpublished correspondence, making it a really terrific new edition.

It turns out that manuscripts also have lives of their own, with hidden stories, strategic translations and freshly edited republications and, as with people, it is only a matter of judgement which versions are the most authentic, which voice most true, and which should be remembered or retold.


Similar Posts

Monday, 28 July 2014

D Day + some

This 6th June was the 70th anniversary of D Day, the day when Allied troops landed in Normandy to start the liberation of Nazi German-occupied western Europe. Despite the moving coverage given to this anniversary, it is hard to imagine the courage of those who took part, or to quantify the terrible losses of that day. As this summer progresses we should also remember the heroism of others who were called to action for the liberation of Europe.

On 5th June I went to the launch of Paddy Ashdown’s new book, The Cruel Victory: The French Resistance and the Battle for the Vercors, 1944, which tells the story of the French maquis who rose up to challenge the Nazi occupiers of their country, declare an area of free France, and tie-up battle-ready Wehrmacht troops who might otherwise be deployed north.


The Vercors rising was one of the largest resistance actions of the war and, although brutally suppressed, Ashdown argues that ultimately it was nevertheless a ‘cruel victory’. Although I take some issue with this conclusion, that does not diminish the importance of the action in the Vercors, or of this book in assessing it within the wider context of the Allied war strategy, and providing a fine tribute to the men, and women, who served on the plateau. Read my review for The Spectator.

I knew that Ashdown was working on this book because he had been in touch about the role played by Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of the Second World War, and the subject of my last biography, The Spy Who Loved. Paddy describes Christine rather memorably as ‘beguilingly beautiful, extraordinarily courageous and enthusiastically promiscuous’. She was also a brilliantly effective special agent, and ultimately highly honoured for her huge contribution to the Allied war effort.

Christine serving in France, summer 1944
Christine had been parachuted into France some weeks before the Vercors rising to act as a courier for Francis Cammaerts, the rising star of SOE in France who was coordinating resistance plans to support the Allied liberation in the south of the country. Christine’s role was to take messages between the different resistance cells, and help to coordinate the clandestine supply of arms and equipment. Although she and Francis did serve on the Vercors plateau during the rising, her most important work - work which would make her legendary within the British special services - was yet to come.

Francis Cammaerts, 1944
Allied planes dropping canisters of supplies 
to the French resistance in the Vercors, summer 1944
The morning after her retreat from the overrun Vercors battle zone, Christine threw herself into her next mission. Over the next few days she established the first contact between the French resistance on one side of the Alps, and the Italian partisans over the mountains. She then single-handedly secured the defection of an entire German garrison on a strategic pass through the mountains. On her return she learnt that Francis, and two of his colleagues, had been arrested by the Gestapo during a standard roadblock check. Christine begged members of the local resistance to mount a rescue operation. Probably wisely, they rejected the idea. At this point in the war they could not afford to risk either the men or the weapons required for such an operation. In any case, the three men were held in a secure prison and due to be shot within days, so any rescue attempt seemed doomed to failure if not suicidal. Undaunted, Christine cycled over to the prison, assessed the situation, and secured the release of all three men on her own…

Francis and Christine returned to work immediately. The American General Patch, who commanded Operation Dragoon (Anvil), was due to land with his troops on the French Mediterranean coast on 15 August. The American forces' plan was to break out of the bridgeheads and fight up the Route Napoleon towards Grenoble with the aim of rendezvousing there on D-Day +90. They had not counted on French support. Francis’s resistance circuit, and connected local resistance groups, felled trees and blew up bridges to harry and redirect German troop movements while clearing the through roads for the Americans. MRD Foot, the father of SOE historians, believed that Patch arrived eighty-four days ahead of schedule as a result of this brilliant work. Paddy Ashdown believes it took Patch just 72 hours to get through, and he cites this work as one of the greatest contributions of the French resistance to the Allied war effort.

Christine sitting by a water duct near the blown-up bridge at Embrun,
Haute-Savoie, France, August 1944
The Germans stipulated that they would only surrender to the Americans. Poignantly, however, in the event they were obliged to surrender to Lt Colonel Huet as well, the French commander of the tragic Vercors resistance. That evening Francis and Christine went freewheeling down a hill in a US jeep to celebrate the victory.

D Day was a harrowing day of incredible bravery and fortitude. As we commemorate the courage of the men who stormed the Normandy beaches, we should also remember their colleagues-in-arms among the courageous French resistance and the British, Polish and American officers who worked with them either in the invasionary forces or with the special forces in the field. Among them were Francis Cammaerts and Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, who shared their goal of a free Europe, and who would never forget their fallen comrades.

Christine paying her respects to those lost at the Battle of Vercors
at a memorial event,  July 1946.


Similar Posts

A Comic Strip War

Can war be seriously examined through art inspired by American comic strips? As a biographer I am fascinated by the different ways in which human stories from the past can be effectively examined and presented, particularly when this touches on my own current area of interest, the Second World War. So I was captivated when a friend and neighbour, Brian Sanders, published a stunningly beautiful and evocative picture book memoir, Evacuee. Sandy, as I know him, is now working on the sequel, about his life in post-war London, and invited me over to have a look.

If you are as stunned as I was by the cover of Evacuee, I should perhaps mention that Sandy has had a wonderful fifty-year career as a professional artist with commissions ranging from magazine illustration, Penguin book covers and postage stamps to being the official artist portraying the making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during 1964-65, and designing the advertising poster for last year’s acclaimed television series, Mad Men. However, it is Sandy’s work portraying war, and the impact of war on lives, that fascinates me most.

As a young man, Sandy served in 45 Commando Royal Marines during the Suez Invasion and later in Cyprus. His irrepressible talent for capturing the scenes around him was soon noticed by the intelligence officer, and he was recruited into the Intelligence Section to record events, the movement of people and so on, as well as producing occasional private portraits. When he returned to Britain all his drawings were in his sea-kit bag, and had been stolen before he arrived. The only piece he has from this time is the one published in Soldier magazine, below, showing how far from reality the public image of life in the Libyan desert was at the time:

Tripoli 1957 
Sandy never sought a career as a war artist but commissions for various publications, and several series of stamps including those commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Second World War, naturally followed his experience and the trust placed in him as an artist who, as he put it, ‘had been there, and understood what war was’.

Some of Sandy's stamps commissioned to commemorate
the 50th anniversary of the Second World War
Now a pacifist, Sandy has always aimed to report historically rather than comment through his art, letting events speak for themselves. ‘I wouldn’t glorify war’, he told me, but ‘in fact I have advertised war, I have done pieces for Officers Magazine and so on’. It was only when he came out of the Royal Marines that he gained a new perspective on Britain’s involvement in Suez, and his attitude started to shift.

After a rich career in what is called ‘lifestyle illustration of the 1960s', Sandy is now taking a very different look at the Second World War, focusing on his own childhood as a London evacuee in Saffron Walden, a market town in Essex. Free from the constraints of commission or briefs, this is a very personal project, the impact of which comes from both its clear sincerity and its wonderful evocation of time and place.  




Sandy told me that his great blessing is that he has always known he had to draw. The Evacuee project began with loose sheets of pictures drawn from memories, and collected in a small black folder until he suddenly realized there was a book there. He found no problem remembering what he saw, and felt, as a child; ‘my problem is eliminating pictures, not finding them’, he told me. Soon he realized that the book was naturally going to be told from the perspective of his younger self in the form of the American comics that he had collected during the war, and long afterwards. In this way the book speaks directly to ‘children of all ages’, from three or four, up to 65 or 70; ‘the people who were there’. As a result Evacuee is great fun, with hundreds of wonderfully evocative visual details, and the echoing refrain that rang in his ears as a boy; ‘because there’s a war on’. And yet although Sandy’s own father survived the war, he makes a point of recording without unnecessary elaboration that those of two of his friends did not.

Evacuee is an honest book and this, combined with the stunning art-work, is where its power lies. ‘It’s about the people that I love, that I loved at the time’ Sandy says simply. Although increasingly conscious from readers’ reactions that the book is seen as a much-loved contribution to social history, his intentions were always just to record and let the pictures speak for themselves. This is a world beautifully observed by a child and reproduced by his adult self, which is at once deeply personal and yet also gloriously familiar. ‘It is deliberately for everyone’ Sandy told me, but because it is his own story it is also compellingly authentic. Surely this is social history at its best.

Sadly Evacuee is currently sold out, but the good news is that as I left Sandy this afternoon he was heading to his studio to work on the sequel about his life in post-war London and Saffron Walden holidays. I will let you know when it is out, but here is a sneak preview of a page in progress:



Similar Posts

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Keeper of the Locks

I love my family. Last year, for my birthday, among other things my mum gave me a well-wrapped cigar box celebrating the Brussels Grand Prix of 1910. It made a light parcel and did not rattle when I shook it, but inside was something rather wonderful.


First was a card that said ‘Mary Smith, nee McCombie, 1895-1984’. I was slightly nervous that I might be facing my grandmother’s ashes but instead, below the card, were two chestnut-coloured ponytails, each tied with string. As a schoolgirl, Mary had worn her hair in plaits. In 1911 when she went out to work, aged 16, she had bunched her plaits at the neck, or curved them round her head. But by the 1920s she had a fashionable flapper’s bob and she kept her hair short for the rest of her life. So at some point she must have decided that her long hair was too much trouble and rather regretfully cut it off, or perhaps it was with a sense of liberation that she had her hair chopped, shocking her rather staid aunts as she marked her transition to adulthood and independence.

Mary as a schoolgirl
Mary with her hair up for work.
I have noticed that when a lock of hair is treasured in a film it is usually lush and shiny, and does not look very real somehow. Not so these girlish bunches, which have split ends and several knots, very like my daughters’ hair which I brush and plait most mornings before school. But her long hair must have held great value to Mary for her to have hung on to it all her long life, and clearly the keepsake resonated with my mother too, who could not bear to part with her mother’s treasured bunches either. 

Mary’s bunches.
With nearly 100 years in a box, the hair has now taken on even greater significance. My own daughters squealed rather delightedly at this family relic from a woman, a great grandmother, who they had never known. But my husband was rather less convinced. ‘Thank goodness it is not a finger’, he said, ‘or even a set of teeth. Perhaps, if it must be kept,’ he added, ‘it could be put to good use, in the mix for some renovating plaster for our walls, or the stuffing for the piano-stool’. My family, he seemed to be suggesting, might be quite capable of keeping anything, and in this he is probably right. Now, however, this box is not just full of hair, it is full of historic-hair, family hair that has been loved and valued by two generations already. Its significance is in its preservation as much as in its DNA. So now I am the keeper-of-the-locks, which sit in their box on the shelf with my prettier old books, some of which themselves were given as school prizes to various great uncles and aunties. 

This year my mum, who has clearly if unofficially given me the job of family historian, wrapped me up another of Mary’s treasures; a medal engraved on the back to ‘M McCombie, 2nd Place, Open Competition Girl Clerks, April 1912’. My granny had come second in the country for her civil service entry exams that year, or at least of those girls taking the exams at the ‘Civil Service and Commercial College’ at 1, 2 & 3 Chancery Lane.

Mary's Medal, front

Mary's Medal, back
A medal seems a much more reasonable thing to keep than some old, slightly tangled hair. Medals are earned rather than grown after all, and they were not once actually part of a human being. But perhaps clever Mary had just as much pride in their hair as her exam results. And, I have realized, it is only the two things together, the hair and the medal, that start to hint at the whole woman behind them, Mary Smith nee McCombie, a smart woman who made her own way in the world, but who also rather romantically refused to ever throw out the long hair of her childhood. Perhaps that is a combination that has a certain power of its own, something to emulate, as well as something to preserve.