World War Three
Stoddard Martin recalls the wartime exploits of three contrasting characters
A Very English Hero: The Making of Frank Thompson, Peter J Conradi, Bloomsbury, London etc, 2012, 409 pp, £16.46; She Landed by Moonlight: The Story of Secret Agent Pearl Witherington: the ‘real Charlotte Gray’, Carole Seymour-Jones, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2013, 409 pp, £13.20; The Girl from Station X: My Mother’s Unknown Life, Elisa Segrave, Union Books, London, 2013, 353 pp, £12.7
We do not live in an era of moral certainty. In Anglo-Saxon countries questionable wars –Vietnam, Iraq – have left more than one generation drained of faith in the adage ‘Dolce et decorum est pro patria mori’. Some excitement persists for the idea of spying – James Bond films continued to spin money during decades when spun dossiers became our expectation of politicians. At the same time, American films have taught us that the agent who believes in the probity of his deployers may be being set up as a patsy. Be your own man and adhere to higher truth is the message. Country – nation – is too often in hock to this mafia or that. Indeed, nation itself may no longer be much more than a concept of mafia writ large.
Perhaps it was always thus. However, there was a time when nation could be conceived of as a higher good, at least in contrast to what else was on offer – ancien régimes, dominance solely by power, supranational groupings given to corruption or debauch. Such was the case for many in our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations; two world wars were fought in a context where national virtue was not subject to grave doubt, and many rushed to serve without apprehension that winds of change might blow one into becoming a free agent. Nowadays many will feel nostalgia for the certainty of those eras. Loyal service is longed for even as scepticism morphs into cynical disbelief. And there are establishments ever keen to revitalize values by which they once flourished. Vested interests don’t just die; pressed to the wall they may, however surreptitiously, fight back.
Formerly secret archives are not, one assumes, opened to authors liable to cock a snook at their revelations. Authors given access may be expected to have proven tried and true. This is not to imply that they must be ciphers or ‘owned’, only that they can be relied on to be ‘sound’. Nothing wrong in that; it is at least a way in and, once in, the best may turn out to be their own men or women. An example is Peter J. Conradi, whose biography of SOE agent Frank Thompson, A Very English Hero, tells how a poetic young man from a distinguished Anglo-American intellectual family died in the Balkans, age 23, while attempting to assist an uprising against a fascist puppet régime. Conradi’s sympathy for his subject – a civilized soul who was theoretically ‘engaged’ to Iris Murdoch[i] – leads him to follow Thompson’s path in ruminative detail and to postulate that a life given up to such a cause, however noble and ethically sure, may be on balance a life thrown away, neither dolce nor decorum.
The sadness Conradi evidently feels for his young victim is in a tradition well-known from World War I – Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and others who died in that catastrophe. Conradi, who has also written about Buddhism, displays what Allen Ginsberg described in another context as a ‘bodhisattvic heart’[ii]. This is contrasted by the brio with which Carole Seymour-Jones treats her SOE operative, Pearl Witherington, in She Landed by Moonlight. The book is also a close account vivified by authorial identification with subject; but whereas sensitive males have been sacrificed at the altar of conflict for so long that it may be, as in Conradi’s case, difficult to view them going off on their missions without a tear in the eye, brave women have been ‘allowed’ into these ‘male’ roles so seldom that it may prove equally difficult for a female author not to feel curiosity bordering on enthusiasm and, in a case when tragedy is not the upshot, a touch of the triumphal. Seymour-Jones’ tale is far from the ‘girls’ own’ adventure that its title might imply, but it is not being invigilated by the sweet melancholy and higher irony that, for some, Conradi’s title evokes.
Both authors are tested biographers and in Seymour-Jones’ oeuvre Pearl succeeds two forthright women in competition with men: Vivienne Eliot and Simone de Beauvoir. The first was suppressed by her husband, the second never granted more than co-equal status by her partner in ‘dangerous liaisons’[iii]. Pearl in her war-work exceeds both in individual glory, and her eventual husband, with whom she operated, played second fiddle to her. (He would later remark, ‘If I hadn’t met you, I would have been a hobo.’) Coming from shabby genteel origins in the Anglo community of prewar Paris, Pearl rose to become ‘warrior queen’ of the Indre, Joan of Arc to her maquis and unqualified hero in guerrilla war with the Nazis – in her case we need not change the term to feminine gender. ‘As good as a man’ is how one may respond to her acts as Seymour-Jones recounts the dangers, deceptions, secrets and sabotage with a pace in contrast to the admirable contemplation Conradi applies to Thompson. It is hard to believe that these two young people, Pearl and Frank, were working for the same bosses in the same war at the same time, if half a continent apart. One is a Slavic tale, full of eastern down drift, the other Gallic and marked by esprit and rigueur.
In fact, the success of Pearl owed much to her gender. Women were (perhaps are) less visible in covert ops, less expected to supervise parachute drops, dispense weapons, control funds, destroy phone lines, electricity cables, train tracks and bridges. They may be less ready to live off the land, rough it in the Massif Central without washing, proceed by blackmail, coercion and theft. On the other hand, they may be more able to manoeuvre out of instinct, scenting traps and evading capture by charm or even clairvoyance[iv]. More than men they may know how to make themselves loved, thus to command loyalty, even evoking Mills & Boon emotion when needed: Seymour-Jones implies this of Pearl and on occasion offers a neat double-entendre – Pearl is given cover by the uniform of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, abbreviated FANY. All this, however, would have profited Pearl little had she not had a near native feeling for things French, and Seymour-Jones is adept at leading us through terminology of the epoch – attentisme (waiting to see which way the wind blows), clandestinité (cardinal talent for résistants), gros bonnet (Gestapo who can be corrupted), baignoire (water-boarding, to avoid at all costs), résistants de la dernière heure (late comers to the right side), naphtaline (fighters whose uniform has ‘the smell of mothballs’).
Above and beyond Pearl’s mission looms the machination among gods on the faraway Olympus of London. Chief of these was the engueulade between Churchill and De Gaulle, antagonism which at one point led the bulldog PM to explode to his erstwhile protégé: ‘Every time we have to choose between Europe and the open seas, it is the open seas we shall choose. Every time I have to decide between you and Roosevelt, I shall always choose Roosevelt.’ Churchill kept secrets from De Gaulle, ran ops in competition with the Free French and told SOE contingents not to work with them. This became easy once the death of Jean Moulin virtually eliminated Gaullist resistance, and many in SOE often seemed to prefer to deal with the rival Communist résistants. But much went on in a grey area where allies and even national operators could be cut off from aid or expended. SOE was Churchill’s pet; the SIS loathed it and tried to shut it down. However, the ‘old spook’ (Seymour-Jones’ tag recalls young Winston’s service in the Boer War) was as shrewd at power intrigue and playing organizations off one another as at setting up clandestine ‘controlling sections’ for Deception, for Destruction and for Double-Cross. All is summed up by his apothegm: ‘In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.’
Seymour-Jones is excellent on this, as she is on a predictable post-liberation reaction. In September ’44 DeGaulle told the SOE man in Bordeaux, ‘Vous êtes anglais, votre place n’est-ce pas ici.’ Later that day his Minister of War told the same agent ‘quitter la France dans les deux heures’. Pearl and her French husband-to-be were not treated with much more decorum – a shock, given their close relation with resistance on the ground. Officialdom to come became less and less congenial. A Wehrmacht division, surrounded by but unwilling to surrender to the maquis, was allowed instead to do so to an American general, who behaved with his German counterpart as if ‘two great gentlemen making an agreement in circumstances marred only by the presence of some troublesome Frenchmen’. To Pearl’s dismay, the division was escorted to safety north of the Loire and greeted as POWs with oranges and chocolate. The great adventure was drawing to a close, and she like many of her kind would soon return to a civilian life where no moral certainty existed, no good job was on hand and – because she was a woman – honors offered were derisory in comparison to those given to men for equivalent service. Pearl refused an MBE and set about scrabbling a living for her feckless husband and new child by working as a secretary at the World Bank.
Seymour-Jones tracks Pearl’s tale to its end, noting the rectification of her honorary status before her death by the present Queen. The book, however, is really about Pearl less than the great, grim adventure which was covert service in occupied France. It is history and Pearl an illustrative ‘figure in a landscape’[v], one of thousands once ignored or viewed as ‘second rate’ on whom an edifice of victory was built. Pearl is never inward – she was no Frank Thompson – and would, one feels, not have been so effective had she been. Blunt, capable, charming, clever, she would, one may guess, not have fired the imagination of a Peter Conradi, who in the course of his portrait grows as half-in-love with his ‘very English hero’ as that poetic spirit seems to have done with a prospect of ‘easeful death’. Seymour-Jones is exhilarated by her tale, which is always on the outside, about ‘that war’, and familiar as such: we know how it will end. This reduces its forward drive not a jot, because this accomplished author understands instinctively what Hitchcock taught about the successful thriller: an audience can be driven by anticipation just as readily as by suspense.
Neither is at play in Elisa Segrave’s account of her mother’s wartime service in The Girl from Station X. Like Conradi, yet more so, Segrave writes from an author’s inner compulsion as much as desire to flesh out a history oft-told. Her book is a voyage of discovery into another soul, strange yet familiar, to whom she is emotionally tied. Anne Hamilton-Grace came from a family which had made a fortune in shipping and the guano trade. Her father died in action, aged 34, in World War I, when she was an infant. An amateur writer, he sent her a letter from Flanders on her first birthday with this advice for the future: ‘Others will judge you by your own estimate, so it will be well to have plenty of self-respect – but above all avoid being proud with nothing to be proud about. Let your motto be “Play the game and make life for others happier by your presence.”’ The high-minded upper middle-class code is countered later by Anne’s mother’s more ruthless quip: ‘Never do anything if you can get someone else to do it for you!’ Segrave sets out to understand how Anne found and lost her way through life between this moral Scylla and Charybdis.
She is helped by having inherited after her mother’s death in 2003 a cache of diaries Anne kept throughout most of her 89 years. Indeed, Segrave’s book could claim dual authorship as Anne’s diaries make up nearly as much of it as her daughter’s commentary on them. They lead into a realm that Pearl Witherington’s tale escapes and Frank Thompson’s only discloses through surviving poems and letters: the twists and turns of a struggling psyche. These are doubled as Anne’s qualms, wonders and hopes are matched and measured in their analysis by her daughter and often lead to the daughter’s analysis of herself. What we have is not a war story so much as the story of a life/lives in which ‘that war’ figures. Nor is wartime an end as in Thompson’s and effectively Pearl’s cases but a portal through which the postwar world is entered, or perhaps more precisely a vortex through which the prewar world is spun and reformed into what would be much the same, yet so different, to come.
Anne was a debutante who grew up in grand houses – in Belgrave Square, in East Sussex – and holidayed in glamorous places such as Palm Beach and Rome. War did not provide her a chance for advancement or flight from middle class inhibition or impecuniousness; it was a matter of oblige and national duty. It did not offer diversion in foreign parts and tongues, but ended both. She went to work in one of the huts in the warren Churchill arranged at Bletchley Park for the essential matter of code-breaking. At one point the PM visits and she records: ‘It really was rather a thrill to see him, in our office, sitting at Humphreys’ desk and looking at our Middle East reports!… [He] said, “It is amazing that a place that looks so simple can really be so sinister.”’ This, one supposes, refers not just to Bletchley’s arts of code-breaking but its facility for code-making – false codes to deceive enemies. It was detail work, sedentary, taking long hours, dreary and in a setting anything but congenial. ‘The whole proceedings [sic] is the essence of discomfort and sordidity,’ Anne complains. ‘It is a queer life! The atmosphere of intellectuality, of abnormality… is so depressing. I loathe every moment of it.’ And later, by contrast: ‘When one meets someone from the outside, one breathes a new atmosphere of common sense, gaiety and the things that matter in life… One feels ashamed of being part of the Park.’
This is no tale told to glamorize service; on the contrary, it provides an essential corrective – spying, as often said, is ¾ quotidian grind. Anne complains of everyone growing ‘unhinged’; at one point she feels like she is in ‘a concentration camp one can never get out of’. Yet after a spell of liberty in London, she returns to Bletchley to feel ‘a strange kind of peace again… as though I no longer exist any more and am just a shadow with no thoughts or feelings, safe from this terrible mental torment that overwhelms me like a cloud.’ Do we have here an equivalent of Churchill’s ‘black dog’? If so, one wonders what may be the connection between the deep, anti-social actions of spookery and depressive states. Like Churchill, Anne drinks, often too much. She finds relief in writing. Starved for sensual pleasure, she becomes fascinated by a handful of strangers who surface, a Pole, a Jew – ‘These foreign men have minds like women and yet they are not effeminate.’ She grows hyperconscious too of the odd ‘second rate’ females around her with their WAAF ‘nicknames of ambiguous gender: Andy, Paz, Bunty, Knotty, Kiwi, Ronnie, Doc, Dovey and Hammy’.
In the cloistered warren, with males off at war, lesbianism peers round the corner. Anne at first claims, ‘It revolts and sickens me’; later she confesses, ‘I was attracted by the sensuality and exoticness of it.’ She finds her Sapphic colleagues to have ‘hypersensitive nerves and quick brains and intelligence’ and wants to know ‘how their minds work and what are the responses if you “are one too”?’ She does not become ‘one’, though her daughter senses a pull in that direction. ‘Are we – sophisticated people, always looking for the perverted side of life and trying to explain things by sexual theories, missing something greater that cannot fit into a theory because it is so rare and elusive?’ Anne ponders, yet does not pursue this transcendental apprehension any further than the carnal ones which appear to trigger it. Rather she seeks to return to a privileged life where bohemianism is conventionalized and, after war ends, does so by marrying a naval officer perfectly straight in desire for ‘making spermia’. Four children, of which the book’s author is eldest and sole female, are the result.
Anne’s war work constitutes the headline topic of The Girl at Station X, and her last duties – on the continent after VE Day – provide her diaries’ most arresting entries. Brussels strikes her as shockingly prosperous – much more so than victorious London and in contrast to Paris, which seems to have lost its soul under Nazi occupation. North and west Germany seem so placid and calm that she wonders how total war could ever have visited there. All this changes when she reaches the Russian sector and encounters bombed-out cities, refugees with no food or shelter and of course the true concentration camps. But Anne does not stay in this macabre region for long. Quickly she is back to London, which she now ‘hates’, then to New York, which she loves, and eventually to Madrid, where her husband is posted as attaché. A few fine years there are among the last she records. In many ways they are the best of her life. They seem also to be so in the memory of her daughter, then a tiny child.
After Madrid, Anne’s husband has no ‘proper’ job and is ‘assimilated into her café society’. Segrave sees this as leading to his decline; Anne would defend her part in it using the language of old privilege: ‘How could I expect him to work after he’d had such a hard war?’ After his death and other family reversals, she too would decline, into alcoholism, dementia and isolation, except for one or two special women friends. This dénouement troubles Segrave, and her book is sometimes anguished, yet no worse for it. She sums up her experience of exploring her mother’s diaries thus: ‘I was reminded of those “magic” paint books that I had been given as a child – you put a paintbrush in water and gently stroked it over a blank page, then a picture, hitherto invisible would slowly take shape.’ The picture that has emerged is of a life partly wasted, yet partly redeemed by a chance for work taken and efficiently carried out. The diaries reveal secrets faithfully kept, not only official but personal. The last image is of a tiny girl walking towards her mother through the deepening waters of a ‘wild’ Spanish sea; of her Anne says, ‘I was so proud’ – words that a grown daughter admits to have been searching for throughout.
‘I love only what is written with blood,’ Nietzsche said; ‘write in blood, because blood turns to spirit.’[vi] Minds shaped by journalism may prefer war tales in more official hues, but a book like this coeur mis à nu adds telling strokes to the larger picture.
[i] Conradi’s book was inspired as a kind of sequel to his biography Iris Murdoch: A Life
[ii] He was speaking of Jack Kerouac
[iii] The title of Seymour-Jones’ double biography of Sartre and de Beauvoir was Dangerous Liaisons
[iv] Seymour-Jones ascribes this metaphysical power to Pearl
[v] Peter Conradi’s phrase for what he was trying to paint in his Murdoch book
[vi] Thus Spake Zarathustra, Prologue, VII