Book review: The Little History of Devon

Beneath its placid, seaside resort, areas of outstanding beauty exterior, the county of Devon has had a livelier history than many.

Don’t believe me? Then pick a century at random. Try, the 16th: The heyday of many Devon-born explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Piracy and smuggling were rife. The county also played major roles in the Wyatt and Prayer Book Rebellions. The 20th? Remember the wartime devastation of the air raids on Plymouth and Exeter? The booming seaside of Regency Exmouth in the early 19th century. The ten sieges of Exeter. Perkin Warbeck’s march on Devon. The critical role played by the county in the Civil War. The trials of the Bideford ‘witches.’ The history of England is fascinating and Devon has certainly played an essential role in making it so.

This new book by Suze Gardner avoids jumping around all over the place as I just did. It tells the story of Devon in 21 easily absorbable little chapters, starting with details on the county’s geology (fun fact: only a small amount of the so-called ‘Jurassic coast’ is actually from the Jurassic era) and stretching right up to the lowdown on the early 21st century sitcom, Jam and Jerusalem.

With so much potential information to impart, there are potential dangers here, of course. Any history risks being overly dense as it seeks to burden the reader with too many facts. At the other extreme, a writer might go too far to avoid doing this and end up producing something so lightweight it ends up not really telling the reader anything substantial at all.

Happily, as in her previous book, The Little Book of Devon, Suze Gardner avoids both of these traps. Whether discussing the Honiton lace trade, sinister occultist, Aleister Crowley or the Battle of Jutland, she achieves the perfect balance between being highly readable and accessible while also remaining substantial and informative. There is also plenty of good history to be learned here generally too, not just about Devon. The next time anyone says to you they want to come to see Devon’s famous ‘Jurassic Park’ or tries to claim crime writer, Jessica Fletcher lived in Greenway, toss over a copy of this book.

I should declare an interest here. I do not know Suze Gardner myself and have not met her. I have, however written the book, Secret Exeter (2018) with Tim Isaac and also wrote A-Z of Exeter: Places – People – History (2019) myself. I regularly write features on local history for the magazines, Exeter Life and Devon Life and write a weekly history column which runs in the Sidmouth Herald, Midweek Herald and Exmouth Journal. I have definitely used Suze Gardner’s works to inform my own writing. I will doubtless do the same again in the future.

I do have one or two minor niggles with the book, however. For one thing, it occasionally, just sounds a bit wrong. Consider this, on James II: “The new king was a Catholic (the last Catholic in England). Worse still, he was intent on making the country Catholic again too.” I don’t think Suze Gardner means this to sound as if it’s bad to be Catholic. But it does rather come out sounding that way. She also doesn’t mention General Buller’s youthful bravery during the Zulu Wars: the heroic side of his reputation rests entirely on this, not on his later, rather more dubious record as a General during the Boer War.

Some of the sub-headings do sound a bit Horrible History-esqe too: ‘Awful Antarctic,’ ‘Hooray Henry!’ and ‘Awful Arsenic and Monstrous Manganese’. My worst criticism would be the excessive overuse of exclamation marks throughout the entire book. Often, they just seem inappropriate: “Remarkably, many Saxon government methods are still in use today!” “Often services had to be held outside to accommodate all the worshippers!” and ‘The people of Victorian Exeter had very bad luck with their theatres as three of them burnt down!” None of these sentences needs an exclamation mark, particularly as one of the fires referred to in the last one was actually a terrible tragedy. There are many more examples of this throughout the book.

But I didn’t spot any real factual errors. And ultimately as a concise and highly accessible guide to England’s third largest county, this is basically unmissable.

Book review: The Little History of Devon, by Suze Gardner. Published by: The History Press, 2021

Book review: The Real Hergé: The inspiration behind Tintin

There has probably never been as successful European cartoonist as the Belgian, Georges Remi, aka Hergé (1907-1983). The man behind the twenty-four hugely popular Tintin adventures is justly celebrated as a formidable creative talent. Yet the real Hergé was a more complex and often much less lovable character than his most famous creation. Prone to overwork and occasionally extramarital affairs, Hergé’s life and career have been clouded in controversy with the cartoonist accused of racial stereotyping and of collaborating with the occupying Nazi regime in Belgium during the Second World War.

The truth, as detailed in Sian Lye’s well-researched and very readable book is fascinating.

Book review: The Real Hergé: The inspiration behind Tintin, by Sian Lye. Published by Pen & Sword, White Owl

The heroes who saved Exeter

The news was alarming, to say the least.

At just past 1am on the morning of 4th May 1942, radio operators based in Exeter, reported that forty German bombers – Junkers – had taken off from Nazi-occupied Paris and were now heading for Exeter. Although the news was not totally out of the blue –  Exeter had already been suffering as a result of the Baedeker Raids and had already experienced serious attacks late in April –  this promised to be the worst attack yet.

Thankfully, a small but valiant band of heroes were on hand to defend Exeter that night. Demonstrating incredible bravery and facing terrible odds, the 307 Polish Night Fighter Squadron went into battle despite having only four serviceable Beaufighters available. As we know, Exeter did not escape bombing that night. However, without the actions of the Polish fighters, the consequences would have undoubtedly been worse. By 2.30am, the squadron were accredited with shooting down four Junkers including one which had crashed near Topsham cricket ground.

In short, the role of the Polish Night Fighters in defending wartime Exeter, is too often overlooked.

Always faithful

The story of the Polish Night Squadron essentially begins with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939: the event which triggered British involvement in the Second World War. With Poland defeated, many Polish pilots made the hazardous journey to Britain. Eventually realising their worth, the RAF soon had the Polish pilots flying with them, initially stationed in Blackpool. In Lincolnshire, a  new division was formed under Squadron Commander Stanislaw Pietraszkiewicz. It was named the ‘307 (City of Lwow) Night Fighter Squadron’. It arrived  in Exeter in April 1941. The location was fitting. The city of Lwow, now known as Lviv is now part of the Ukraine. By coincidence, the city has the same motto as Exeter: “Semper Fidelis”: always faithful.

The division had another name too: they were known as the ‘Night Owls’ or the ‘Lwow Eagle Owls’. An owl, a plane and a crescent moon were included in their emblem.

The Night Owls remembered

The Night Owls remained  in Devon until they were moved to Swansea in April 1943. Their role in Exeter had extended way beyond the actions of May 1942. Many of the pilots suffered death, not just in combat, but often as a result of technical faults on their planes. They also came to play a vital role in city life. Some of the pilots married and had children during their time in Exeter.

2019 was the 80th anniversary of 307 Squadron and in November (14-15 November) 307 Squadron held a major exhibition at Exeter Guildhall to mark the anniversary. The Polish flag was raised on 15th November over the Guildhall as has happened every year since 2012.

Extra: What were the Baedeker Raids?

The Baedeker Blitz was a series of air raids launched during April and May  1942, in response to the RAF attack on the undefended city of Lübeck. The German high command reportedly used the 1930s edition of the Victorian Baedeker series of guidebooks to help them identify English towns which were valued primarily for cultural value, rather than for their strategic or military importance. Exeter – in fact, a city of cultural value but also not strategically insignificant either – was targeted first. The overall campaign was abandoned fairly quickly but nevertheless cost some 1,600 lives in total and destroyed many buildings.

Chris Hallam wrote the 2019 book, A-Z Exeter – Places, People, History and co-wrote, Secret Exeter (2018). Both books are available now from Amberley.

Blu-ray review: Dunkirk

Director: Christopher Nolan. Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, James D’Arcy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy.

Cert: 12 Out: now

Dunkirk

We Brits are good at turning our disasters into triumphs. Dunkirk, was, after all, a total catastrophe from a British viewpoint but somehow by adopting phrases like “Dunkirk spirit” it has come to be viewed almost as a source of perverse national pride. Perhaps one day Americans will come to feel the same about the Fall of Saigon in 1975? Perhaps not.

This is not, of course, to denigrate the bravery of those who fought and died in 1940 or those who helped in the celebrated mass evacuation. And, just to be clear: Christopher Nolan’s film certainly has no illusions about the horrors of the conflict either. The film was probably the key cinematic experience of 2017.

But does it work as well on the small screen? Essentially, the answer must be yes and no. What the transfer to Blu-ray adds with one hand, it takes away with the other.

One thing is not in doubt however: Dunkirk’s place in the cinematic history books is assured.

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Book review: Ardennes 1944 – Hitler’s Last Gamble by Antony Beevor

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As 1944 neared its end, a spirit of optimism seized the Allied forces. Following the D-Day landings in June (detailed in Antony Beevor’s last book) the Allied advance towards Berlin looked unstoppable. Many predicted a repeat of 1918 and a second internal collapse within Germany ensuring Allied victory before Christmas 1944. This was not to be.

Hitler’s surprise counter-attack on the relatively undefended area of the Ardennes failed in its ultimate aim to split the Allies by driving them back to Antwerp. But it did succeed in prolonging the war, provoking a fit of squabbling among the Allied generals – notably Montgomery, Patton and Eisenhower and cost many lives. Among the US troops on the ground were the established author and adventure-seeker Ernest Hemingway and the future novelists JD Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut. Trapped in the notorious Hurtgen Forest, the future Catcher In The Rye author Salinger was present for one of the bloodiest engagements endured by US forces during the entire war.

Few topics have proven more an enduring a source of fascination than the Second World War and few have continued to chronicle it as masterfully as Antony Beevor.

Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble by Antony Beevor. Published by: Viking.

Book review: Dad’s Army The Story of a Classic Television Show, by Graham McCann

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Few sitcoms have aged as well as Dad’s Army.

Whereas many of the comedy series of the seventies, now seem either inexcusably racist (Love Thy Neighbour) or just plain awful in their own right (On The Buses), forty years after its heyday, Dad’s Army looks better than ever. This is partly down to its period setting, but not entirely. Laudatory though this 2002 history of the series is, author Graham McCann is absolutely right to praise the pitch perfect writing and casting of the series. And amazingly, despite running for nine years (1968-1977, much longer than the Second World War itself), Dad’s Army did not even run out of steam. Only Fawlty Towers and The Good Life have endured even half as well. And neither lasted as long as Dad’s Army.

It could have been so different. The series was originally to be called Fighting Tigers and co-creator Jimmy Perry originally conceived the series as a vehicle to get back into acting: he wrote the Private Walker spiv part eventually played by James Beck, specifically with himself in mind. He was hugely disappointed when the powers that be decided against casting him in the role. What’s more, future Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge actor Jon Pertwee was seriously considered for the part of Captain Mainwaring while a young David Jason was offered Clive Dunn’s role of butcher cum Lance Corporal Jack Jones.

But the show was quick to enjoy success. Some actors were disarmingly similar to the characters they played, John Le Mesurier  consciously played the laidback Sgt. Wilson essentially as himself while many thought, Arthur Lowe was too quick to deny any similarity between himself and the pompous bank manager George Mainwaring. The masterstroke here, of course, was to switch the two actors between the two more obvious ranks. The middle-class Mainwaring is frequently fuming with class resentment towards his public school-educated sergeant. Wilson, himself, meanwhile is as totally at ease talking to serving maids as anyone else and seems largely untroubled by the potential whiff of scandal hanging over his relationship with Mrs. Pike.

Others bore less resemblance to their roles. Arnold Ridley, who played the genteel Godfrey wrote the successful play Ghost Train and had been wounded in both World Wars, while John Laurie (Frazer) bore many similarities to his character, but had not lived in Scotland for fifty years. Clive Dunn and Ian Lavender had little in common with Jones or Pike, though Dunn, like most of the main cast had war experience.

Although strong to the end, the show lost something with the sudden premature death of actor James Beck in 1973 and wound its way to a natural conclusion a few years after that.

Graham McCann’s excellent book reproduces the famously eccentric radio interview Ian Lavender (who played mummy’s boy Private Pike) from 1987. Having established, not very tactfully, that nearly all of the principal cast had died in the ensuing decade, the interviewer then asks bizarrely: “will you be making any more?”

And here is the final irony. In the thirteen years since this book came out, inevitably still more of the remaining cast and crew have died, notably Clive Dunn, writer David Croft, Bill “Warden Hodges” Pertwee, Pamela “Mrs Fox” Cundell. Virtually only Ian Lavender and Frank Williams, who played the vicar are left. And yet a new version of the story is planned, in the form of a film version scheduled for release next year.

Extreme foolishness or a good idea? Only time will tell if lightning can strike twice in this case.

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Winston Churchill: alternative lives

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Winston Churchill died fifty years ago this week in January 1965. Born in 1874, four years after Charles Dickens died, Churchill, who was nearly thirty when the first aeroplane flew, lived into the space age, the nuclear era and the time of Beatlemania. Perhaps more importantly, he has perhaps greater claim than anyone to have saved Britain, perhaps even western civilisation. For had not Churchill become Prime Minister in 1940 and without his decisive leadership in the dark years that followed, the liklihood of the world sucumbing to the evils of Nazism would have been very real indeed. Let us consider, for a moment, how things might have gone differently…

He might have died in 1931
Churchill rarely shunned danger and might, of course, have been killed many times during his long life, for example, while fighting at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 or on the Western Front where he fought in the trenches during the second half of the First World War. In 1931, however, while serving as an MP, he was struck by a car while on a speaking tour in New York. Churchill was entirely to blame. He had been getting out of a taxi in a rush (he was running late) and had stepped out without looking, forgetting that cars drive on the opposite site of the road in the US. Churchill survived, receiving only a scalp wound and cracking two ribs. The car had been travelling at thirty five miles an hour. Had it been going a few miles faster, the implications not just for Churchill but for the world as a whole since 1940 and everyone alive today are almost unthinkable.

He might have quit politics in the 1930s
Who would have blamed him? Like his father, he looked like “a man with a great career behind him”. He had already resigned from Stanley Baldwin’s National Government over their position on India. Churchill’s opposition to Indian independence looks more wrongheaded now but his dire warnings over the dangers of German rearmament were being ignored too. These were his “wilderness years”. He was 61 at the time of the December 1935 election. Nobody would have been surprised at all if he had stood down. In truth, he probably needed the money to keep Chartwell going.

He could have died during the Second World War
Though it was covered up at the time, Churchill suffered a mild heart attack while visiting FDR in Washington in December 1941. Had he passed on, his designated successor Anthony Eden would have succeeded him (as he eventually did in 1955). Would the rest of the war gone as well under Eden? Would he now have a far better reputation than the one he currently has, tarnished irrevocably by his poor leadership during the 1956 Suez Crisis? We will never know.

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