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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.

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