British schoolboys doubtless have quite different fantasies nowadays, but for much of the last century most of them liked to imagine themselves leading their friends in guerrilla warfare against the German army. Stephen Grady is probably unique in having lived the fantasy, an experience he recalls in Gardens of Stone.
Born in 1925, in the French village of Nieppe, just over the border with Belgium, he was the elder son of a Royal Artillery corporal who married a Frenchwoman and was a gardener for the Imperial War Graves Commission. In the first world war the district had been a battlefield, and the infant Stephen played marbles with shrapnel, in a house built from rubble and in gardens pegged out with bayonets. He tells his story in brief chapters, exactly dated and vividly anecdotal, in the historic present tense.
A mischievous boy, he is given to such practical jokes as knocking on people’s front doors and running away, and puncturing bicycle tyres. He and his friend Roussel watch men visiting Au Petit Galopin, the local brothel, those going in seeming ‘somehow more cheerful than the ones coming out’, and in December 1936 they upset the 50-gallon oil drum that serves as its pissoir, flooding the place with ancient urine.
The next year Grady is sent for three terms to a school at Ramsgate, where he struggles with compound interest in pounds, shilling and pence, and is confirmed in his identity as a rosbif. On his return he attends the Eton Memorial School at Ypres, established for the children of IWGC workers in Belgium and France.
In May 1938, hunting frogs with his best friend Marcel, he finds a Lee Enfield rifle in a drainage ditch. In September 1939 one of his neighbours is called up: ‘I can’t help smiling as I watch his wife and daughters weeping on the doorstep. I suppose they wish the army wanted them, too.’ In May 1940 his father learns that all the IWGC section heads have gone home. ‘They told us not to desert our posts. But they’ve already taken a boat back to Blighty.’
Grady and Marcel find rifles, a pistol and a machine gun left by retreating French troops, and dig a hole to keep them in. The entry for 14 October 1940 begins, ‘We now have three British soldiers hiding in our attic’, and what with fornicators surprised in the back room of a café, and the Germans’ ‘comedy accent’ — ‘Vous avez écrit “Sale Boche”… C’est pas gentil, ça!’ — the story takes on a distinct air of ’Allo ’Allo. But things turn serious when the pair are incarcerated and starved in Loos prison for three months, faced with the prospect of execution or forced labour.
On their release their struggle begins in earnest. By December 1942 they have begun to call themselves resistants, ‘setting us apart from the many locals who, if they are not actively collaborating in the German rape of France, seem happy enough to accept it’. They puncture the tyres of German lorries rather than French bicycles. Grady is instructed by his hero, a British officer known as Capitaine Michel, in the mysteries of Nobel’s 808 plastic explosive, Bickford fuses and Cordtex cables, which he uses to blow up railway tracks. He sets fire to hay trains with incendiary grenades, and assassinates a German officer.
By May 1944 there are about 14 resistants in the district, armed with Sten guns and Mills bombs; after the Normandy invasions in June that number has risen to 20; and by September every man in Nieppe is in the Resistance, and France is being liberated, not by the Allied armies, but by ‘a bunch of puffballs who have not dared so much as to look at a German in the past four years’.
After the war Grady was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the American Medal of Freedom, and commissioned in the British Army, before following his father into the War Graves Commission; he was appointed OBE in 1984, and retired to Greece.
Now he has made his authorial debut at the age of 87, with a book that is thrilling, honest, funny and sad. He has been ably assisted by Michael Wright, who writes that he has followed ‘Thucydides’ approach of attempting to convey if not what people actually said, then what they ought to have said.’ My only quibble is that the ‘jolly goods’ and ‘wizards’ sit uncomfortably with such phrases as ‘the real deal’ and ‘here’s the thing’.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.