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Extraordinarily ordinary

Wartime Courage: Stories of Extraordinary Courage by Ordinary People in World War Two, by Gordon Brown

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

Wartime Courage: Stories of Extraordinary Courage by Ordinary People in World War Two Gordon Brown

Bloomsbury, pp.256, 16.99

I see from the cover of this book that at least three reviewers had kind words to say about Gordon Brown’s previous effort. ‘Very moving,’ the Guardian wrote. ‘Readable and intelligent,’ alleged the Sunday Times. ‘Trust me: this is a fine book,’ claimed The Spectator. Perhaps they were being polite because the author is not a professional writer, or because all his royalties will go to charity. Perhaps Courage was a dramatically better book. Wartime Courage, though, is lame.

And I’m not just saying that because Gordon Brown’s economic incompetence has caused me such misery. Nor just because as a starving author (late of his publisher, Bloomsbury) I deeply resent the allocation by the publishing industry of time, money, space and attention to people who can barely write and anyway have well remunerated day-jobs. I say it mainly because I’m at least as interested as Brown is in the wartime heroes and heroines whose exploits he describes here, and they deserve much better than this leaden, clunken-fisted cuttings job.

He has chosen his subjects well, I’ll give him that. They include Uncle Bill Slim, our greatest second world war general, the athlete, Eric Liddell, who did much to make life bearable in a vile Japanese internment camp (and was portrayed in the film, Chariots of Fire), Stanley Hollis, the only D-Day VC, the SOE agent, Violette Szabo, and the railwaymen who in 1944 saved Soham in Cambridgeshire from a burning wagon-load of 400 tons of high explosive.

But the fact that these stories are intrinsically so thrilling makes it all the less excusable that Brown has made them seem so dull. After reading his account of what Lt Richard Stannard RNR got up to on his converted steam trawler during the evacuation of Namsos in Norway in 1940, I remained at a loss to understand quite which extraordinary feat won the man his VC. That is not poor Lt Stannard’s fault, I’m sure, but that of his potted-biographer to grasp what makes a good story. Much of the book reads like a barely fleshed-out version of one of those restrained and arid medal citations from the London Gazette.

Take the wonderful tale of the X-Craft submariners dispatched to sink the Tirpitz in 1943. I know this quite well, having recently interviewed and written up the adventures of one of the last survivors, Cdr John Lorimer DSO. What fascinated me about Brown’s account, though only for the insight it gave me into the workings of his brain, was his automaton-like inability either to empathise with his subject (Godfrey Place, commander of X-7) or to work out which details needed emphasising and which could be safely excluded.

So, for example, the heart-stopping moment when Place disentangles with his foot the mine that has got caught on the bow of his X-craft is dismissed in one sentence; the scene where the surviving midget submariners are standing on the deck of the Tirpitz waiting for their eight tons of amatol charges to go off beneath them doesn’t even get a mention. Brown does feel compelled to tell you, though, that the base they set off from was codenamed Port HHZ, that the Tirpitz had three high-pressure steam turbines delivering more than 160,000 horsepower, and that Place was once liaison officer with the Polish submarine, Sokol. Like Mr Gradgrind, all the man understands is facts.

His opening and closing essays are waffly, trite and, insofar as they attempt to make political capital from the achievements of people who have nothing whatsoever to do with him or his grisly ideology, offensive. ‘Wartime courage, and the sacrifice it often entails, is something we should continue to recognise and cherish’, he lectures, for it represents ‘not just a noble history but . . . a precious store of moral capital that following generations . . . can draw on in another age.’ Damn right Gordon: we’re going to need all the steely determination we can muster in this new darkest hour of our nation’s history. And who brought about that darkest hour? You, you, you!

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