Thursday 29 June 2023

An afternoon of Mediterranean Discoveries at the Arab World Institute in Paris by CAROL DRINKWATER

                                             Two angles of  l'Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), Paris

Recently, I had lunch under a thunder-grey sky in Paris. It was a Sunday and the cafés and bars were spilling onto the streets with Parisians enjoying the pleasures of their weekend. I had just flown up from the warm south. Michel, my husband, collected me from the airport before he disappeared for an afternoon screening of one his films at Le Grand Action, a small independent cinema close to where we were eating on the Left Bank. My afternoon was my own to do with as I fancied. A stroll along the banks of the Seine or a museum? 

I had noticed as we drove by that the l’Institut du Monde Arabe, the Arab World Institute, known to all Parisians as IMA, was advertising an exhibition dedicated to Palestine and all that it offers to the world. 

It reminded me that this year of 2023  is the 75th anniversary of the 'Nakba', which means "catastrophe" in Arabic. For Palestinians, 1948, was the year  when thousands were expelled from or fled their country, when they were obliged to give up their land for the creation of the new State of Israel.

I have spent a fair amount of time in both Palestine (West Bank and Gaza) and Israel during my travels while writing my books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree, and later again for the filming of our five-part documentary series inspired by these books, keeping the title for television The Olive Route. Much that I witnessed there saddened me deeply and left me with a sense of impotency.

            Images takes from the internet of Palestinians fleeing their homelands in 1948.

As we all know, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict continues to be a very contentious subject and not one that I wish to address in this article. I only want to share with you a few of my memories of that part of the world and some details about my visits to IMA.

My late father was in Palestine during WWII. He loved the country and its people and talked to me about those experiences on many occasions during my childhood years. His descriptions, reminisces, were vivid, very evocative and moving. Looking back, I feel sure that those stories, those adventures of a nineteen-year-old serviceman (Daddy was with Ralph Reader's RAF Entertainment Corps) seeded my longing to discover the Middle East. Even as a girl I had dreams of running away from school and volunteering for work in an Israeli kibbutz. My parents soon put a stop to all those ideas! It took me many more years before I eventually visited all those Middle Eastern countries. As I said, for my books and films. 

I was stepping foot into cities and temples and markets I had first heard about when I was little more than six or seven years old. They were utterly magical for me, those first impressions.

I definitely feel a special 'homeland' attachment to that part of the world and often joke - fanciful, I know - that perhaps in my very first incarnation I was a Phoenician. The Phoenicians who originally hailed from the Levant. 

                                                                     Maps of Phoenicia

Phoenicia was made up of individual city-states along and inland of the coast of what today is  Lebanon. They were a rich and magnificently-gifted civilisation known mostly as shipbuilders, maritime navigators, traders and agriculturalists. (They created terraced farming). One of the aspects of their civilisation that has always appealed to me is that they were not conquerors or warriors, although their descendants after they founded Carthage were more aggressive. 

The Phoenicians from Phoenicia travelled across the Mediterranean sea from their city-states in vessels know as gauloi (a trading boat with one main sail), transporting, amongst many other types of cargo, olive trees along with the knowledge of the tree's cultivation. They taught the foreigners where they traded how to produce and use olive oil!

                                Images of Phoenician sailing ships, taken from the internet.

                             Sarcophagus of Eshmunazar.  5th century BC Phoenician King of Sidon

Here is a YouTube clip of an exhibition about Phoenician culture and art. This exhibition was held at IMA and I was fortunate enough to see it.

It was an exhibition rich in statuary and artworks. The geographical displays highlighted clearly the impact the Phoenicians, who are known to have been a major seafaring people, made on other civilisations during their Mediterranean excursions. They founded trading posts around the entire Mediterranean and were the dominant traders of these seas between 1550 BCE and 300 BCE when it was the Greeks who took control of these waterways.

It is important to remember that the Mediterranean was a superhighway. It was used for transport, trade and cultural exchanges between many diverse peoples. It encompassed three continents: Western Asia, North Africa and Southern Europe.

In fact, the Phoenicians travelled beyond the Med founding trading posts wherever they dropped oar. On they sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar, out beyond the ancient Pillars of Hercules, south to Essaouira in Morocco or north to the coast of Spain. It is believed they founded the cities of Cádiz and Málaga and were possibly the first settlers to that southern stretch of the Iberian Peninsula coast.

By the way, the extraordinarily evocative trumpet-playing on this Youtube clip above is by Ibrahim Malhouf who is a French-Lebanese jazz musician. If you ever have the opportunity to see him live on stage, I highly recommend you race to get seats. 

Back to IMA and a little about the building itself:

The Arab World Institute is constructed on the left bank of the Seine in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. The idea for an Arab Institute in Paris was first seeded in the early nineteen-seventies when Valéry Giscard D’Estaing was President of France. The purpose was to offer opportunities for research and to disseminate Arab cultural and spiritual values. It was felt that they were not fully understood in France at that time. This was a very important initiative back in the seventies because just a decade earlier the French were extricating themselves, not with all honours, from a long and very messy war, the Algerian War of Independence: 1954 - 1962. It led to Algeria winning its independence from France. It also left a great deal of bad feeling between many Arabs and French citizens, which has not been entirely resolved even today.

The Arab World Institute is an organisation within a building founded between France and eighteen Arab countries.  It is a "secular location for the promotion of Arab civilisation, art, knowledge and aesthetics." Within the building can be found its museum, a vast library, auditorium/cinema, restaurant with impressive views over the city and meeting rooms and offices.

Construction only got underway in 1981 as D’Estaing was handing over the Presidency to François Mitterand. 

Jean Nouvel, one of France’s most esteemed living architects, won the design competition and was put at the helm of the building’s construction. It took until 1987 to complete. It was funded by France and the League of Arab States. It later won the Agha Khan Award for Architectural excellence. (An award established in 1977 and given once every three years.)  

                                               Jean Nouvel, French architect. b.1945

In 2008, Nouvel also won the prestigious Pritzker Award for his contribution to architecture. It included a special mention for his outstanding vision for the "exotically louvred” building that is the Arab World Institute. It is hailed as innovative in modern architecture. 

It is a fascinating and unusual building, much influenced by the decorative artwork the French originally described as Arabesque. Walk the corridors of IMA and you will be blown away by its beauty, the intricacy of the building's designs. 

The Palestinian exhibition, which runs until 19 November 2023, concentrates on four Palestinian artists reflecting Life and the Occupation of their homeland. Territory and Identity. Over the course of this summer, there will be special events, evenings of discussion, film and music. 

The works of the poet/writer, Mahmoud Darwish, who is still considered by many to be the national poet, the voice, of Palestine are readily available in the very comprehensive bookshop. Do take a look before you leave. 


                                                    Mahmoud Darwish (1941 - 2008)       

"And I tell myself, a moon will rise from my darkness."

"Nothing is harder on the soul than the smell of dreams when they are evaporating."

What surprised me more than any other discovery during my Sunday afternoon at the Palestinian exhibition was the section entitled 'Jean Genet, Two suitcases'. For me, it was a revelation. Genet was, of course, always a vagabond, an alternative voice, a political combatant, a petty thief, (his greatest passion during his filching years was to steal rare books!), but I had had not known of his travels in Palestine nor his commitment to the Palestinian fight for independence. The exhibition showcases through Genet's hand-written notes, diaries, observations, even hotel bills, the time and energy he gave to the Palestinian people. 

He wrote an essay, Four Hours in Shatila. The essay was inspired by his visit in 1982 to Shatila, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, where he witnessed much suffering and death.


A book followed, titled Prisoner of Lovea memoir of the Palestinian fedayeen*. Held back, it was only published in 1986, one month after Genet's death. 

*The fedayeen are Arab militants or guerrillas. Many, especially the Palestinian fedayeen, are fighting against Israel. The word fedayeen actually refers to those who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause through armed resistance.

                                                          Jean Genet 1910 - 1986

Jean Genet was born in Paris in 1910, the illegitimate son of an unmarried prostitute who abandoned him. He was fostered by farming people, spent time in reform school, ran away repeatedly from that penitentiary at Mettray. Eventually, he enlisted with the French Army and was sent to Syria in 1929. This was his first contact with the Middle East but it gave birth to a love of the Arab world that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He deserted from the army in 1936, ended up back in prison and then found himself, under Nazi-occupied France, in an internment camp destined for a concentration camp. Over forty influential French writers and artists, including Jean Cocteau, convinced of Genet's genius, pleaded his case, lobbied for his liberty. He was released in March 1944 and pardoned. He never returned to prison again. In 1949, he was also pardoned by President Charles de Gaulle for his desertion from the army. In 1983, he was awarded the Grand Prize for Literature by the French Ministry of Culture.

Genet was an isolated boy who left school at twelve and went on to achieve literary greatness. 

The 'Bad Boy of French letters' died in Paris in 1986, an internationally acclaimed poet, playwright, and novelist.  He is buried in Morocco.

I don't necessarily agree with Genet's politics - many of his statements are, in my opinion, misplaced, extreme - nor do I condone the way he glorified violence and called for it as a means to ending human brutality. For example, he set himself against almost everybody in Europe when in the 1970s he wrote in support of the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany. 

In spite of all this, he is a fascinating study of a troubled genius and his writings sometimes shed light on the Arab world during his lifetime even if he was not really interested in a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

Reading some of his notes in the glass museum cases, hand-written in the tiniest almost illegible scrawl, it seemed to me that he romanticised the fedayeen. His observations of his visits over eleven months to guerrilla bases in Jordan in 1970, romanticised conflict. And in the end, apart from putting the Palestinian problem back in the debating arena in the Western world, principally France, little he said or did made a difference to the conflict, to the resistance.

Much of the above I discovered during my Sunday afternoon at IMA. Impressions, images, food for thought on a conflict, a war, that has endured for far too long.

If you haven’t visited the Arab World Institute, when you are next in Paris, I do recommend a trip. Aside from anything else, it has the best library of Arab-French books in the world. Please bear in mind that it is closed on Mondays. Many museums in France close on Tuesdays but IMA is one of the exceptions.

By the way, if you are living in Paris or staying in the capital for a while, IMA offers Arabic language courses. I am very tempted. I tried once before when I was setting off on my Olive Route travels but I did not get very far. My teacher was a Lebanese cook living in Cannes. One evening when I drove down to his little restaurant for my lesson, the place was locked up. He had gone away without a word. I owed him, still owe him, for six lessons!

The Olive Route films and the two Olive travel books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree are available to buy through the email address on my website.

PS: I have taken most of the above photos from the internet and acknowledge that the copyright is not mine.


Friday 23 June 2023

A Sense of Place by Miranda Miller


                                             Angelica Kauffman self portrait at twelve


A few years ago, I had a Royal Literary Fund fellowship to help students at the Courtauld Institute, then in Somerset House, to write essays. While I was waiting for my Art History students to turn up,I sat in my attic office and wondered about the past of this great building. A hundred stairs down in the basement library, I found two wonderful books: James Fenton’s witty School for Genius and Angelica Goodden’s excellent Miss Angel, the Art and World of Angelica Kauffman. I’d seen a few of her paintings in Kenwood House in Hampstead but knew nothing about her extraordinary career.


                                                        Somerset House



I learnt that in the 18th century a rotting Tudor palace on the Thames, in the Strand, was replaced by Sir William Chambers. His magnificent neo-classical building was a fitting setting for the ambitions of a group of artists, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Angelica Kauffman and the botanical artist Mary Moser, who were all in love with the art of ancient Greece and Rome. They founded the Royal Academy of Arts in Somerset House in 1768 and with their new royal charter they hoped to give more dignity to the arts in England. The inclusion of the two women in this illustrious group was significant, although they weren’t allowed to attend life drawing classes, as you can see from this painting by Zoffany:

 The male artists stride confidently around gossiping together, gazing at the naked male model, while portraits of Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser stare wistfully down from the wall, like ancestors. It’s a terrible reflection on British misogyny in the arts that it wasn’t until 1928 that another woman artist, Dame Laura Knight, was fully accepted as an RA.


 My fascination with all this became my eighth novel, Angelica Paintress of Minds. She charmed me as she charmed the painters, musicians and also the royal family in eighteenth century London. A talented artist, musician and linguist, Angelica also had a gift for friendship. Her friends included Sir Joshua Reynolds, Henry Fuseli, Queen Charlotte, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Emma Hamilton and Antonio Canova Throughout her life she painted honest self-portraits, as well as portraits of her friends, all of whom appear in my novel. When she was 27, she fell in love with and married the “Count de Horne”, a con man who was after her money. Thanks mainly to her friendship with Queen Charlotte she sailed through this potential scandal, which would have destroyed a less brilliant woman. As well as portraits, then the bread and butter of artists, she painted many allegorical, mythological and history paintings, often depicting melancholy women whose lives had been ruined by the macho exploits of their men.

Picture Ariadne abandoned by Theseus


 After fifteen years in London, when she was so successful that the word “Angelicamad” was coined, she moved to Rome with her second husband, Antonio Zucchi, a Venetian decorative artist who had come to England to work with the Adams brothers. Before she married him, she drew up what we’d now call a prenup, giving her total control over her own money. 


                                                        The Spanish Steps



Thanks to a generous grant from the Society of Authors I was able to go to Rome, where I‘d lived in my twenties. I was thrilled to revisit a city I love and which has changed remarkably little since Angelica built her beautiful house at the top of the Spanish steps. Sadly, it’s been demolished and replaced by a grand hotel where my partner and I enjoyed a very expensive cappuccino. I shut my eyes and reconstructed the floorplan I’d seen of her house. After that I felt even closer to her. She flourished in Rome, which was then the centre of the international art world. Grand Tourists and artists flocked to Rome and Angelica ran a salon that was a magnet for painters, writers and musicians from all over Europe.


On the same trip I also visited Weimar, where Goethe built himself a house with an imitation Italianate courtyard and staircase after the two years he spent in Italy studying art. He became a close friend of Angelica’s and I believe she was unrequitedly in love with him. He referred to her as a “tender soul” but didn’t like her portrait of him, which shows a sensitive side of his personality:

“It is always a handsome fellow, but there is no trace of me," he commented. Goethe much preferred to see himself as a "cultural hero," as in the more famous painting of him by Tischbein. Wandering around the grand house where he lived for fifty years I felt I understood him better.


 Napoleon’s army invaded Rome and the Pope was taken prisoner. Angelica feared that her  own paintings and her valuable art collection would be looted by French soldiers. Zucchi died, she became ill and many of her cosmopolitan friends fled. Angelica wrote in a letter to a friend, “those happy days are over;” yet she faced her difficult last years with the courage and determination she had shown all her life and continued to paint.  When she died in 1807 her friend, the sculptor Antonio Canova,organised a majestic funeral.


 While you’re writing a novel time is quite fluid in your head: the eighteenth century, the 1970s and this morning are all happening at once. For me, this imaginative conjuring trick was made easier by the magnificent architecture of Somerset House and the Spanish Steps, and by the Italian influence visible in Goethe’s house in Weimar. In the past I was sceptical about the idea that physically visiting places helps you to write but now I’m convinced. 


Angelica Paintress of Minds, will be published in the US by Barbican Press this month. 


Sunday 18 June 2023

KINGS IN CAR PARKS: Perhaps and perhaps not.

A couple Of days ago a friend thought that I might be interested in a brief piece from LBC news concerning Philippa Langley's claims that the body of King Henry I is currently residing under yet another car park Henry 1's tomb at Reading   at Reading Prison.  

I was interested. 
As many people probably know by now, Philippa Langley was responsible for the drive to find the tomb of King Richard III which led to a car park in Leicester built upon the site of the former Grey Friar's Priory and the discovery of the King's bones. 

While I think that Ms. Langley is probably right, concerning Henry I,  I also think that she might be disappointed if she hopes to find anything, and any 'psychic' feelings she might have on the issue, are echoes rather than actuality of presence of body.  My reason for thinking this is an article from The Times on Thursday December 8th 1785.  See what you think.

" It lately happened that the workmen employed in digging a foundation for the erection of a house of Correction at reading, in Berkshire, on the spot where the old Abbey stood, that divers bones were thrown up. This being the burial place of Henry I, each bone was seized as a kind of treasure, contemplating it as one of the king's; till at length a vault was discovered, the only one there, and which was of curious workmanship. In the vault was a leaden coffin, almost devoured by time. A perfect skeleton was contained therein, and which undoubtedly was the kings who died at the castle of Lyons in Rouen on the 2nd of September 1133. (A bit wrong on the dateline here, Which should read December, and Lyons la Foret was Henry I's hunting lodge), was then embalmed and sent from thence, according to his own desire to be interred in the abbey at reading. Antiquaries have frequently enquired where this monarch's remains may be found but time has effaced every possible mark; though it must be presumed heretofore, the spot has been royally and peculiarly distinguished.

After a series of 650 years, and upwards, it was hardly probable anything but dust could remain; but the distinguished appearance of the coffin, and the vault in which it was interred, put it out of doubt. The account given us by Rapin of the king's death and embalming the body further justifies the presumption that this coffin was the king's, especially as his body was cut in pieces, after the rude manner of those days, and embalmed. And Gervais of Canterbury confirms this account by saying they cut great gashes in his body with knives, and then powdering it well with salt, they wrapped it up in tanned oxides to avoid the stench and infections, and that a man who was hired to operate on the head, died presently after.

The gentleman to whom I am obliged for his account adds that fragments of rotten leather were found in the coffin. His curiosity was great, and so was that of the person's assembled in so much, that the bones were divided among the spectators, but the coffin was sold to a plumber. The under jawbone has been sent to me and a small piece of the leaden coffin. The jaw contains 16 teeth, perfect and sound, even the enamel in them is preserved."

The Times Thursday December 8th 1785

This strongly suggests to me that King Henry I's tomb was dissarranged and dispersed in the 18th century.  Of course I could be wrong, but if I was laying bets,  I would say this has strong odds of being the case and that any digging in Reading Prison car park is going to turn up zilch because the tomb's already been robbed out.   

Thursday 8 June 2023

Evocatio - how to entice a goddess by Elisabeth Storrs

The third novel in my A Tale of Ancient Rome saga is entitled Call to Juno. It is set in the final year of a ten year siege between the Etruscan city of Veii and the nascent Republican Rome in 396 BC. These cities were situated only 12 miles apart across the Tiber River but the differences in their societies were marked. The Etruscans were sophisticated and cosmopolitan with trading links extending across the Mediterranean whereas Roman society was insular, warlike and agrarian. Accordingly, by crossing a strip of water, it was like moving from somewhere akin to the Dark Ages into the Renaissance. 

There were many contrasts between these enemy societies but interestingly the pantheons they worshipped contained the same gods with different names. One such Etruscan deity was Uni, called Juno by the Romans. Her counterpart in Greece was Hera. Most modern readers know this goddess as the consort of the king of the gods, namely, Jupiter (Roman), Tinia (Etruscan) or Zeus (Greek.) And the divine spouses were included in a holy triad with Minerva in all three cultures. 

Wedding of Juno - Pompeii 

In Rome, Juno held many roles and was worshipped in many guises. She must have been extremely busy given all her functions! As the goddess of marriage, she protected a bride in her role as Juno Pronuba or Cinxia ‘she who loosens the girdle.’ She was also a mother goddess and protector of children. As Juno Lucina, she looked over women in childbirth, bringing light to the newborn. As she was associated with new beginnings, her sacred day was the Kalends or first day of the month. Juno Lucina was celebrated in the Matronalia festival on 1 March, the first day of spring in the old Roman calendar. On that day matrons and their husbands visited the temple, laid flower wreaths, and prayed for the protection of their marriages by sacrificing lambs and cattle. The wives would undo their belts and loosen their hair to encourage Juno to also loosen their wombs and bless them with children. Husbands would give them presents, and female slaves were provided with special meals and excused from work. 

This gentler aspect of Juno’s nature was contrasted with her role as a warrioress. Juno Sospita or ‘the Saviour’ was a special guardian of Rome in times of war. She wore a horned goatskin helmet and carried a shield and spear. As Juno Moneta, she was the protector of ‘funds.’ Coins were minted in her temple on the citadel on the Capitoline Hill. 

Etruscan Uni

The historian, Livy, states that in 396 BCE, the dictator, Marcus Furius Camillus called to Veii’s guardian, the Etruscan Uni, to forsake her city with the promise of building a new temple especially for her in Rome. This was the first example of the practice known as an ‘evocatio’ or calling forth by which a Roman general lured the tutelary deity of a foreign city to Rome through the promise of games and honours. The fear was the guardian spirit would take revenge if they didn’t continue to receive due respect. There was also fear sacrilege would be committed by taking a god prisoner. And so, in return for betraying their home city, the divinity was granted a new seat in Rome so they would consider bestowing grace upon the hospitable city of their victors. Romans were similarly concerned the tables might be turned on them by their foes. Great care was taken to ensure the name of their own tutelary god was not revealed lest an evocatio was performed. 

The Etruscan Uni was borne by Camillus to Rome as ‘Juno Regina’ - the Queen - and housed her in a temple on the Aventine Hill. There is dispute, however, as to whether she was an ancient Latin goddess already known to the Romans or was only introduced to the pantheon after the dictator wooed her. Confusion arises because Juno Regina is spoken of as one of the Capitoline Triad in the times of the Etruscan kings who ruled Rome prior to 575 BCE. As such Jupiter, Juno and Minerva were each reputed to have cells within the Great Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill long before the siege of Veii. 

This conjecture fuelled my interest in how divinities have their own origins and histories. Yet the fact Camillus built Juno Regina’s temple on the Aventine Hill may be proof that she was indeed introduced to Rome rather being an already established manifestation of the deity. My research revealed that, although Rome adopted foreign cults, alien gods were not allowed within the city’s holy boundary ie pomerium. The pomerium, however, did not always fall within the footprint of Rome’s city wall. This is the case with the Aventine Hill. Presumably Camillus built the temple for Juno Regina there rather than on the Capitoline because Uni was a foreign deity. Hence the traitorous Veientane goddess was unable to truly place a footstep in Rome’s sacred territory. 

Tanit from Spain

Another cruel evocatio recorded by the historian, Macrobius, was the call to Juno Caelestis of Carthage in 146 BCE. She was a manifestation of the Carthiginian goddess, Tanit, the tutelary deity of the city. The razing of the city and slaughter of those people is a bloody history. There is no reference, however, as to whether a temple was dedicated in Rome to the Carthaginian goddess after her treachery. 

By the time of the Empire, the custom of evocatio was not as prevalent presumably because the number of conquests would result in a plethora of temples needing to be built in Rome. Nevertheless, the Romans assimilation into its own culture of the religions and cults of its conquered peoples continued. There was no longer any need to ask deities to make the journey to Rome! 

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. More information can be found at her website 

Images are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Friday 2 June 2023

Decoders of the WW2 Special Operations Executive

by Deborah Swift

After the fall of France and Belgium, a new organisation was formed – the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to strengthen subversion and sabotage in occupied territory and behind enemy lines.

To disrupt the enemy, agents sent abroad were charged with destroying railways, utilities such as telephone exchanges, bridges and factories, and then also to organise resistance cells of volunteers from within. Churchill’s famous instruction to Hugh Dalton, the then head of the SOE was to 'set Europe ablaze!'

The SOE headquarters, to train and recruit enemy agents, was in Baker Street in London, and the SOE began to recruit men and women to fill their ranks. One of the roles they needed to fill was that of decoders, women who would try to unscramble the ‘indecipherables’ – messages from agents abroad who had mangled their coding either through fear, pressure or simply forgetfulness.

These women had some skill in puzzle-solving, for example crosswords, but little else in the way of experience. Often they were daughters of someone else in the service, or of a friend or neighbour, as was all top secret and done by word of mouth. In my novel Nancy arrives there because her brother is already working for the SOE.

Women were recruited from all walks of life, the main criteria being that they had the language of the place they would be operating in, and were calm under pressure. The trainers tested them mercilessly, even going so far as to subject the women to enemy-like interrogations and they were rigorously vetted both during recruitment and during training.


Leo Marks in his book ‘Between Silk and Cyanide’ details all the methods that were tried to make the codes easier for agents to use. These included the use of poem codes (the agent and his decoder would learn a poem as their crib sheet) to printing on silk with disposable single-use grids of numbers.

The average lifespan of an agent sent abroad by the SOE was a mere six weeks, which means many were caught and killed earlier. In Holland the messages were broken very efficiently by the Germans, and after the first few Dutch agents were captured, it made it easier for German Intelligence to transmit as if they were the agent, getting the key to the code through torture and intimidation. The people at Baker Street were unaware they were decoding messages from the enemy who had infiltrated the resistance.

The agents that were still free were always looking over their shoulder. The slightest mistake, such as transmitting too often, would lead them to be discovered. This fact meant that decoding was a high pressure job. The women in Baker Street were working against the clock to crack the message – and the longer it took, the more likely the agent would send it again and that would put them at risk. Just to hop on the air waves was dangerous, when the German detector vehicles were scouring the area for illegal signals.

In my novel, Nancy goes on to work as an agent, to be the one sending rather than just receiving the radio messages. They were few restrictions on what agents could do, and outside the SOE the organisation became known as the ‘Ministry for Ungentlemanly Conduct’. This was because the SOE was responsible for high profile missions rather than the secretive low profile favoured by the Secret Intelligence Service, usually known as MI6.

For Nancy’s journey I researched the various countryside properties that were requisitioned by the SOE. Remote locations were used, such as the remote Arisaig in the Highlands of Scotland, so that the agents could develop skills in how to kill with their bare hands; the preparing of disguise, how to sabotage a train; and even how to break in and out of buildings by picking the lock with wire. Other country Houses that were used in SOE training included Winterfold House, Cranleigh, and Fulshaw Hall, Cheshire. The latter was the place where agents did parachute training. Several agents were injured during this training which included jumping out of a barrage balloon over a Manchester airfield.

If an agent survived weaponry training and passed the parachute test, they were ready to go behind enemy lines. The agents were assisted on their missions with some James Bond type equipment supplied by ex-film property makers working in an old hotel called The Thatched Barn – special clothing, cases to conceal radio and camera equipment, explosive devices. They also supplied false documents for the agents’ cover stories.

Sir Stewart Menzies head of the Secret Intelligence Service denigrated the SOE as 'amateur, dangerous, and bogus' and eventually the RAF, sick of losing planes to drop agents into Holland, simply refused to lend out their aircraft for these clandestine drops. They would rather drop bombs than agents. Nevertheless, the SOE produced many brave men and women whose actions were courageous, intelligent and awe-inspiring. I hope Nancy Callaghan, my main character helps you experience what life was like for those women who joined.

Read more about Female Spies of the SOE

See also Seven Stories from SOE agents

Find me at  or on Twitter @swiftstory