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Saturday, 31 July 2010

James Hilton 1900-1956.

A few thoughts on Nothing So Strange 1948. James Hilton is best known for Goodbye Mr Chips, a story drawn from his school experiences, and Far Horizons with his great invention Shangri La. He was a Hollywood screen writer as well as a novelist, who smoked himself to an early death. Nothing So Strange is about the war, set in wartime. Its theme is waste of talent through unreasonable suspicion. A talented physicist for very complex reasons was working for a pro-Nazi boss in Vienna, later in Berlin, just before war was declared. He was therefore ignored both as a scientist and a pilot in the airforce, considered to hot to handle. However his work if recognized in Germany could have produced a nuclear bomb by 1943, and equally could have contributed to the American effort. Instead, he was under psychiatric care, hounded both by psychiatrists and security forces who would have been more fruitfully employed elsewhere. His mentor through this was his student, probably to become his wife/partner. She knows, as we the reader knows, that he had an affair with her mother, but he does not know she knows, but her father does. This all keeps the war reflection steaming hot. He had a guilty secret, that he finally reveals: not murder or adultery, or anything so predictable. But he had falsified his data before leaving Berlin so his discoveries could not be misused. As a scientist,  this compromise whilst necessary was a matter of shame.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

SOE and Vera Atkins

A recent trip to Cornwall brought me to Zennor, home of the Tinners Arms with Tinners Ale, the church with the mermaid, and a small Cornish life museum. DH Lawrence had been here in 1915-16 with his German wife Frieda, cousin of Baron Manfred von Richthofen the air ace. Not a combatant on health grounds, the locals were suspicious and persuaded them to leave. The story, and the bitterness of the experience, is found in Kangaroo. In the church is a memorial to the Burma Star Association, with a book to inscribe memories and appreciation. The Association has been very active in linking and championing those soldiers with traumatic memories from their youth. Percy our former neighbour, was one of these, buried eventually with full Burma Star honours. The book tells a similar story of servicemen remembered but now dead. One piece of graffiti condemned war, preferring I guess to live in a fascist dictatorship.

The stimulus for this post is my fruitless search for the gravestone of Vera Atkins. I remember seeing it some years ago, but could not find it again. Vera was the key administrator at Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Baker Street. Jewish, a refugee from Romania, former family name Rosenberg, she always had to cope with feelings of vulnerability. She ran operations involving both men and women, but it was the SOE women who caught the popular imagination after the war. The film on Odette and book on Madeleine have given this group of women mythic status. Noor Inayat Khan, from a Sufi family, alias Nora Baker, alias Madeleine is a personal favorite, a woman with deformed feet because of foot binding as a child, a pacifist who refused to take weapons on a mission, and who refused to reveal any information under torture.  The reality is that they were doing a dangerous job, for reasons of their own, because of ideals they were prepared to die for. Any some of them did, either on the ground or in Ravensbruck concentration camp, or Buchanwald.  After the war she hunted down their killers and worked with the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. She chose to be buried with her brother Guy in Zennor. The story is well told by Sarah Helm, A Life in Secrets. The official historian of SOW is MRD Foot.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Heming and Marsh again

Chance finds, bought together today in Cirencester were Jack Heming's Blue Wings (1938) and DE Marsh's The Airmen of the Island (1945). Since the dealer had bought them as a pair, his source must have known the connection, that they were husband and wife. Dorothy Eileen Marsh was the birthname of Mrs (Jack) Heming who used many pen-names. It started as a means of surviving the depression, a visit to London, and perhaps to WE Johns, told them that the future was in aeroplane stories for children. Jack tended to be more action-oriented and Eileen more relationship focused - although Eileen was fully capably or writing blood and thunder action stories, particularly using the Guy Dempster alias, war stories for boys. See my other blogs on this family via the labels.

The Airmen of the Island  focuses on an Orkney teenager Rob Ker (age 17) who is master of a tiny island, Megg, who by saving a ditched Australian pilot early in the war found his way into flying with Coastal Command. The story featured Sunderland Flying Boats, introduced 1938. Germans take over Megg to fortify it and threaten Scapa Flow. Rob escapes to warn the RAF and a counter attack takes the island back, which then is fortified as an RAF base. But, the Germans take it over again... The first Nazis were callous and brutal; the second group were more polite (with "false politeness") - "you fought a good fight". The dead are accepted and not mourned. "Bill and Cleaver are gone" - "That's too bad"... "Let me gather our dead". The other planes at the base are Defiants, which are depicted as newer and deadlier than Spitfires. In fact they were not so. Built by Boulton and Paul, they had gun turrets rather than forward guns, so 109s soon realised that they could attack head-on with relative impunity. In the story, 3 Defiants were enough to knock out a flight of bombers and their attendant fighters. In real life, Defiants were put onto night-patrol duty, at which the excelled. The story also introduces an aircraft carrier and Navy forces, with Swordfish and Skua planes - the Fleet Air Arm, not so named in the book. This is a favorite topic in her Guy Dempster thrillers. One other detail, an occasional character is named Carter, probably Eileen's best known pen-name (Dorothy Carter).

Jack wrote less, and paused as he joined the forces in 1939. His Blue Wings is uncomfortable reading, as four WW1 flying aces and one youth, Ray, fly to Spain to support the "nationalists" (Franco's fascist insurgents) against the elected socialist  ("communist") government who are depicted as Russian inspired, with a People's Committee to punish failure or opposition. Jack  was anti-communist rather than pro-fascist - their side are termed 'nationalist' and the government are seen as Russian invaders. At the end of unlikely and intrepid adventures in that blood-thirsty civil war, they returned home alive and joined the RAF.  De Havilland Dragons (biplane, built 1932) and Mew Gulls (1936) are the planes mentioned. The Percival Mew Gull was a single engined racing plane and only 6 were built, top speed over 250 mph - hot news in air racing when the story was being written. The back blue plane on the cover is a rough approximation, and the illustration on page 85. Why was one of these highly expensive machines owned by a youngster and based in a temporary county council airfield?  And then for a second to arrive there...  The illustration on page 197 is perhaps a biplane Dragon. The twin engined blue monoplane on the dustjacket is a Monospar (ST10 perhaps, picture below).
The red biplanes (make unidentified) belong to the Spanish socialist government and carry the Spanish roundel. In the story most are flown by Russians.

 Jack's story does not in fact glorify war but gets young readers ready for a war that by 1937 was inevitable. WE Johns announced this constantly in Popular Flying, emphasising the need for the government to prepare. Ray entered the civil war for adventure, without any political ideals. He soon sees war as 'conscienceless'. Dogfights may be a game - a Russian ace comes down to give him some more petrol so they can carry on - but it is a deadly game, the objective to down planes and probably kill the pilot. The leaders of both sides drool with anger and solve problems by killing. War's horrors are hinted at, and war itself condemned subliminally but constantly. A boy needs skill and a level head to navitage through with higher ideals. They all end up joining the RAF preparing for the world war to counter aggression that is invariably coming. 

Eileen unfortunately died early, in 1948, having brought up four children as well as writing 120 books. Jack later wrote after Eileen's death under her pen-names for a few volumes between 1948 and 1960.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Major Charles Gilson 1878-1943

On Secret Service, 1935. Humphrey Milford/Oxford University Press. A first world war spy story in which a cell of German spies set up a beacon to guide Zeppelins to bomb Whitehall. Felix Von Arnheim, German masterspy, alias Hubert Hamilton uses his Old Etonian background and contacts to lead the group. Daniel Wansborough, British counter-espionage officer, is tasked to discover and neutralise the plot. Young George Thurlow is kidnapped after apprehending a spy dropped from a Zeppelin, and works out the plot from the inside.This is pre-parachute so the spy has to be lowered in an observation car on a mile-long wire.

Gilson had been writing stories for boys since before the first world war, cutting his authorial teeth in Boys Own Paper (BOP). His writing is jingoistic, blaming the Germans for the war and heroising the allies (this book shows cooperation with the French). A pawnbroker, Israel Levinski is "a Russian Pole. A Jew" (strange labelling!) and his 'hooked nose' makes the stereotype clear (198-9). He is dirty, in a dingy house, but the detail is positive and sensitive. He is not a money-grabber but a poor man trying to survive, a refugee. In contrast, Lord Freyling is a wastrel, a gambler, who betrays his country to pay off his gambling debts. The story follows George first, then cuts to Daniel's investigation, joining up when Daniel taps on the window of the room in which George is imprisoned (137, 204).

Gilson's Germans were Nazis, not 1914 period pieces. The espionage threat was real and modern, and Gilson set the trend for spy hunts which dominated children's fiction until after 1945. He was nearing the end of his writing life and was increasingly affected by the illness which ended his life. But his writing was truely multicultural, and warned vividly of the dangers of totalitarianism, whether Nazi or Japanese. His Out of the Nazi Clutch (1940) was a remarkable book to be penned at the outbreak of war. A schoolboy Walter, studying in Germany rescued a Christian boy, Otto Spohr, a quarter Jewish, being stoned by a mob. Gilson is, as usual part teacher-preacher, blaming the Nazis for their policy of hatred, and condemning thier followers for blind obedience. Walter's hosts actually condemn themselves - " is a terrible disgrace on Germany... but what can we do?": their son is in Hitler Youth. Walter saves the Spohrs from Buchanwald concentration camp, that "place of torture" for people whose only crime was being Jewish. No trial -"beaten, scourged and kicked, many of them not to be seen again alive" (92-3). All this in 1939-40, when even the British government were denying it. My thanks to Owen Dudley Edwards for a lively discussion of Gilson in British Children's Fiction in the Second World War, especially pages 561-7.