Friday, 29 November 2013

The Summer of 1940 by Lydia Syson

A big welcome to Lydia Syson, who is our guest for November. Appropiaitely enough in theis onth of Remembrance, she has written a novel set in 1940.

Photo: Sanne Vliegenthart

About Lydia: she is a fifth-generation North Londoner who now lives south of the river. Although writing a novel was a very early ambition, it took her rather a long time to get round to A World Between Us, set during the Spanish Civil War and published by Hot Key Books in 2012. In the meantime, she went from being a World Service radio listener in Botswana to a producer in London, leaving the BBC after her first child was born. Three more children later she wrote a biography of Britain’s first fertility guru, Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed, telling the full story of the charismatic eighteenth-century ‘electric’ doctor. Getting to Timbuktu is still on the ‘to do’ list – explorers, poets and Timbuktu fever were the subject of the PhD she finished in 2003 – but recent travels have been closer to home. Her new book, THAT BURNING SUMMER, is set in July 1940 as the Battle of Britain was raging over Kent. Sixteen-year old Peggy faces a test of love and loyalty when a young Polish pilot crash-lands near the family farm. 

“That Burning Summer” emerged, layer by layer, almost entirely from the place in which it’s set. Years of mooching around Romney Marsh (cycling between its pubs and churches, and walking, windswept, along that peculiar triangle of Kent coast which juts out towards Boulogne, made me see the summer of 1940 in an entirely new light. The more I dug, the more intrigued I became by the ‘underbelly’ of the Battle of Britain: all those elements of wartime life which the propaganda posters are precisely designed to cover up. The uncomfortable truths.

Posters like this have supplied our most enduring images of the era. Propaganda deals in myth of course, and wartime myths - invariably more palatable than the reality – quickly and powerfully come to dominate memory and imagination. So in my childhood, like most Britons, I’d absorbed a fairly standard narrative of World War II: ‘we’ won. It was the ‘good’ war, the ‘just’ war, unlike the futile one that preceded it, and “Britons never, never will be…”

And I here I stop. Because one subversive grandmother (London Granny) used to finish this song off with ‘marrai-ed to the mermai-eds at the bottom of the deep blue sea’ while the other (Country Granny) memorably brought me up short one day in conversation in her kitchen when I was about ten years old with the information that she and everyone else on the South coast of England were firmly convinced in 1940 that Hitler actually would invade. For the first time in my life, I learned that the prospect of losing the war was at one time extremely real. I was shocked. I’d really had no idea.

One half term, exploring a flooded pillbox on the Royal Military Canal ( with my children, that conversation suddenly came back to me. The Canal, which curves efficiently from Hythe to Rye, was originally built to repel Napoleonic invaders, and also to control smugglers. It was the first effective line of defense in these parts in 1940, when German invaders were anticipated at every moment. What would it have been like, I wondered, to live on the Marsh then, between canal and coast, listening to the guns as France fell, knowing that your turn was coming next? I imagined the vast and beautiful skies above scribbled over with vapour trails left by dogfights. I pictured a parachute descending, a falling plane, an unknown airman…

These thoughts were mostly prompted by that fact that one of my children was deep in the grip of an obsession with flight, and World War Two with it. After several years of intense discussions of the relative merits of mangonels and trebuchets, we’d moved on to Merlin engines, Hawker Hurricanes and Heinkels. Words like ‘aileron’ had suddenly entered my vocabulary. Eventually, I took my place in the back of a frail 4-seater plane and my ten- year-old son flew me 2,000 feet over the Marsh: his tenth birthday present was a flying lesson. Seeing the Marsh from this height was, unsurprisingly, a revelation.

An even more significant revelation for That Burning Summer came from below the ground. In Brenzett Aeronautical Museum ( I first encountered the discoveries of another generation of obsessives: the amateur aviation archaeologists of the 1970s and 80s. Unlike the RAF, they refused to give up their efforts to trace long-lost pilots and planes. In a slightly ramshackle building that once housed land girls, we peered at a scorched German parachute [IMAGE: ‘Remains of German parachute] treasured for years by the girl whose brother had rescued it from a tree, read stories of pilots who’d bailed out of burning planes only to be mistaken for the enemy, and were simply amazed at the sight of aircraft parts that had been buried in the Marsh for decades.

Hurricane cockpit
It seemed unbelievable. How could entire aircraft simply be swallowed up like that, invisible and untouched for decades?

Not just aircraft, but often their pilots too.

Arthur William Clarke, a Hurricane pilot in the Battle of Britain, was listed as ‘missing, presumed dead’ at the age of 20. In a letter to Arthur’s mother, grimly typed a week after his disappearance, his Squadron Leader strikes a weary note:

‘I am afraid that there is very little hope of hearing from him now. We were on Patrol over Kent, when we intercepted about 30 Enemy Bombers with Escort Fighters and attacked about 10 miles west of Folkestone, we went into attack three at a time and your son was in the second three to attack, nobody saw anything happen to him and after the attack we were split up and returned home separately as usually happens, as nobody saw anything one really cannot say what happened.

It is conceivably possible that he jumped out by Parachute and was carried by the wind out into the Channel where he might have been taken prisoner by a German Torpedo Boat, but I am afraid that is very unlikely…I am sorry I cannot tell you anything more than this, but nobody saw anything. I am afraid this is often the case in these Air Battles.’

Arthur Clarke’s Hurricane had come down unseen, to vanish immediately into Romney Marsh. Forty-six years later, the dogged work of a freelance aviation historian made it possible for his family to put up this memorial near this lonely spot not far from the tiny village of Newchurch. Like many families in the same position, they decided to leave his mortal remains in peace.

‘Nobody saw anything.’ That stuck with me. If a plane could just disappear like that, its pilot with it, and nobody see, what else could happen? What if you were a pilot who had got to a point that you actually wanted to disappear? What if you bailed out just in time, and realised that nothing, nothing on earth, could make you get back into a cockpit? Surely not every fighter pilot was as brave as the smiling young Englishmen celebrated in Churchill’s famous speech, with its electrifyingly Shakespearean echoes. What if you simply lost your nerve? What happened to the Unhappy Few?

Here’s another lonely memorial.

We came across it one day walking with friends at Dungeness, heading east into scrubland, lighthouse and power station at our backs.

“What’s that flag?” one of us wondered out loud.

“Poland,” came my son’s authoritative reply. (There was slightly more of the flag to go by five years ago than there is today.)

BogusÅ‚aw Mierzwa was killed here on 16th April 1941, after having flown missions in combat against the Luftwaffe since September 1939. This tattered flag made me want to find out more about the Polish pilots who took to the skies over Britain in the summer of 1940. They’ve been described as the ‘forgotten few’. The stories I discovered made me ashamed to have known so little about them before.

When the men of the Polish air force arrived in Britain – over 8,000 were evacuated - they had already experienced multiple invasions. In the first month of the war, Poland was invaded twice: by Germany and then the Soviet Union. Contrary to the myth that their planes were destroyed on the ground in the first days of the war, these men fought bravely then, and many went on to make dangerous odysseys halfway round the world, spending time in virtual prison camps en route, and fighting in the Battle of France too before reaching ‘the Island of Last Hope’. Probably the best-trained pilots in the world at the time, they then had a struggle to convince the RAF to let them fly. Before long, Polish pilots had a reputation in Britain for almost insane courage: they fought with the desperation of the already occupied.

The story I had begun to hatch about a pilot in hiding became suddenly more interesting. I discovered a chilling term: ‘Lack of Moral Fibre’. LMF was hastily introduced in April 1940 to deter aircrew from refusing to fly. Effectively, you were branded a coward. Historians have found RAF medical records on psychological welfare suspiciously incomplete, so I don’t know if any Poles were officially ‘diagnosed’, but I had reached the point by then where imagination could take over. I couldn’t imagine anything more shameful for a Polish pilot than a failure of courage. The character of Henryk began to take shape.

Can anyone know how he or she will respond when truly tested? In June 1940, every household was issued with a leaflet: ‘If the invader comes: what to do and how to do it’. I imagined a child becoming obsessed with the confusing advice it contained. Rule 2 (‘Do not believe rumours and do not spread them’) included the worrying advice to keep your head. Common sense was apparently the best way to tell whether ‘a military officer is really British or only pretending to be so.’ All very well, but what if you were one of those people whose senses weren’t like everyone else’s? I’d recently been finding out about dyspraxia. For various reasons, multiple instructions, short-term memory and organisation can be incredibly difficult for people with dyspraxia. It’s little understood even now. In wartime Britain, any child like that would probably have been automatically dismissed as ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’. So how terrifying such a set of instructions would have appeared to a boy like Ernest, in That Burning Summer, a quiet, bird-watching boy who’d never had to be ‘manly’ before.

Rumour and the control of information were issues of huge concern to the Government in the months before the ‘Blitz spirit’ emerged. Two weeks after Dunkirk and five days before the fall of France, the over-crowded troopship Lancastria was sunk off the French coast, and as many as 6,000 lives may have been lost. It was the worst disaster in British maritime history but the news was kept secret for fear of its impact on morale. I’d interviewed a number of Lancastria survivors for a radio documentary many years ago, and found the contradictions between the ‘official’ war narrative and their own stories both moving and fascinating.

By 1940, up and down the country, people were (overheard) complaining about the increasingly heavy hand of the state. The pro-democracy Mass-Observation movement had become a tool of the Ministry of Information and ‘Cooper’s Snoopers’ were quickly compared to the Gestapo. Meanwhile Mass-Observation diarists like Nella Last continued to record the kind of casual anti-Semitism we prefer to forget was rife in 1930s Britain, and Communist families on the South coast destroyed potentially incriminating papers in anticipation of invasion and imprisonment or worse. My London grandparents made preparations for a friend to look after my mother in case of their own arrest. Others stockpiled suicide medication and buried treasures of all kinds.

In this climate of mistrust, spyfever inevitably broke out. In playgrounds and post office queues, front parlours and cinemas, it was fed by radio programmes like ITMA and films like Contraband and The Spy in Black. On Romney Marsh itself, suspicions were confirmed by the appearance of four rather incompetent spies on the coast in early September.

But there was another secret threat: from Madrid, and the Spanish Civil War, came the fear of the Enemy Within – ‘The Fifth Column’, ready and waiting to support the invaders when they came. Oswald Mosley and 740 other active fascists were interned in May 1940, but that still left plenty of sympathisers at large to worry about.

Pacifists made easy targets. Orwell declared them pro-Fascist, the Daily Mail called for the Peace Pledge Union to be banned, and an article in the Sunday Pictorial soon after Dunkirk referred scathingly to our ‘national pansies’. Across the country, Conscientious Objectors were dismissed from teaching positions.

The more I read, the more torn I felt. I thoroughly admired the morality of their absolutist stand against war, and the complicated kind of courage it took to maintain. Yet the experience of writing A World Between Us, set among International Brigaders during the Spanish Civil War, had made me less sympathetic than ever with the disastrous policies of appeasement: the non-intervention agreement that turned a blind eye to Hitler and Mussolini’s support for Franco and enabled him to win the war was part of the same thinking. If I felt like this, now, how much harder must it have been to work out the right thing to do in the summer of 1940.

All these ideas kept swirling around my head as I wrote, and found their way into the isolated church on Romney Marsh where much of That Burning Summer is set, and some of it was actually written. You won’t find many direct references to them in the story that finally came out, the tale of ‘a girl, a boy and a crash-landing…’ - Peggy, Ernest and Henryk - but they’re there in the warp and weft of the novel. And I’ll never walk beside the ditches and across the fields of the Marsh and see them in quite the same way again.


Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

well, you;ve certainly made me want to read it . . .

Petrea Burchard said...

This is utterly fascinating. What a terrifying time in which to live.

julia jones said...

As an Essex dweller I had that moment of realisation when I first read Margery Allingham's The Oaken Heart, written in an Essex village near the coast 1940-41 when the end of the story wasn't known. I think your Romney Marsh novel sounds terrific and have just bought it.
Loved your photos too.

Anne Booth said...

I loved 'A World Between us' and learnt so much about a period of history I knew little about, so I am so glad you have written a second, and I can't wait to read it. In the 'Imagine' documentary with Judith Kerr this week she mentions her parents' fear that the Germans would invade, and the fact that their local doctor had supplied them with suicide pills for that eventuality.
This was a brilliant post and I am going to go to Waterstones TODAY and buy or order this.

Lydia Syson said...

Thank you so much for all your lovely comments. Judith Kerr has always been a great hero of mine, and I think my grandmother's remark probably stuck particularly firmly because the conversation must have happened quite soon before I first read 'The Other Way Round' (now usually called 'Bombs on Aunt Dainty'). I shall definitely hunt down 'The Oaken Heart' - can't wait to read it now.

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating to read more of how the book came about - and I want to read The Oaken Heart, too. Wasn't the 'Imagine' documentary good? I felt a bit chastened by her dismissal of The Sound Of Music though, the bit where they escaped. I still love to watch that film, corny as it may be!


War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.