Shhh...don't mention the eugenics

Jonathan Freedland's new Sam Bourne yarn sheds light on one of Britain's more chilling wartime secrets, he tells Christian House

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There is a last-chance saloon fit for edgy servicemen slotted just off St James's Place in central London.

The American Bar at the Stafford Hotel, with its womb-like armchairs and immaculate service, is just the kind of haunt in which to knock back a final bourbon before an overseas posting. In fact, the bar, one of many tagged "American" to draw new, wealthy US clientele in the early 20th century, was a haunt of Canadian officers and the American Eagle Squadron during the Second World War. It's the perfect place to discuss Jonathan Freedland's new novel, Pantheon, a transatlantic thriller set in the summer of 1940.

Freedland, whose novels are penned under the nom-de-plume of Sam Bourne (a conflated moniker derived from one of his son's names and Matt Damon's movie spy), is by day a political columnist. With his blanket-bulk winter overcoat and oblong glasses, he looks like he could have stepped straight out of a wintery Washington briefing. In fact, he admits, he has just rushed from a press call in the hotel, hosted by a member of Obama's administration.

Pantheon, like the other Bourne novels, has a conspiracy at its heart – the kind of scoop that would earn Freedland a raise in his day job. Its hero, James Zennor, is a junior fellow in an Oxford college, despairing as war wages on the Continent. An injured veteran of the Spanish Civil War he is unwanted by the army, and when he returns home to find his wife and young son missing, fears the same of his own kin. However, he is soon on their trail, one which takes him first to Liverpool and then to the US, specifically Yale University, to uncover the machinations of a covert Allied eugenics programme. Throw in a sub-plot involving a US diplomat with ties to the British far-right, and the result is a barrelling page-turner.

The initial setting is a familiar one to the author. "I was a student at Oxford when they began filming Inspector Morse," says Freedland. "The first term of 1987."

However, he didn't see the city of spires as a potential setting for his own fiction until he fell upon the story of the Oxford evacuees. This true story saw 125 children and 25 mothers sent to the safe climes of Yale, on the latter's invitation. It was one of these children, now a woman in her seventies, who told Freedland of her suspicions as to the motives behind this seemingly altruistic act by academics. "There's a line in the correspondence between Oxford and Yale," he explains, "in which one of the people at Yale says words to the effect that 'through doing this, perhaps we should save some of the children of the intellectual classes for the next generation'. He doesn't simply say 'save some lives', he specifically says there is a higher purpose."

Of course, much eugenic theorising can be dismissed as elitist and snobbish posturing. Yet liberals, socialists and even members of the Fabian Society all flirted with the concept. Dignitaries such as William Beveridge, Marie Stopes and George Bernard Shaw were advocates in one form or another. Shaw's "eugenic creed" tied in with his Pygmalion thinking, only here he was playing Professor Higgins to mankind.

Freedland has a particular fascination with the purchase this rationale had with the Left, and how even benign, liberal programmes such as the one providing free milk to schools had eugenic undertones. "That was partly a reaction to the Boer War. In the soul-searching afterwards, people wondered why British soldiers had been able to be defeated, and they noticed that there was ill-health and bad teeth," says Freedland. "It was stated that we needed more calcium, and so to improve the quality of British stock there would be free school milk."

"We have the benefit of hindsight," Freedland continues. "The popularity of eugenics as an idea plunges after the war, because people took one look at where it leads. The British had the experience of sitting in cinemas looking at newsreels of Belsen, and later Auschwitz, and wanting no part in that. But it can be chilling when you look at the people I've quoted with these sorts of ideas. Sir Bertrand Russell with his colour-coded procreation tickets, for example. It's Orwellian."

Freedland points out that Britain has created a "creation myth" around the Second World War. "We've re-carved the landscape of that period," he explains. "We say that the Nazis were 100 per cent evil and we were 100 per cent good; we were morally and ideologically pure, and would obviously have nothing to do with any of their ideas. But actually, people who were absolutely good, patriotic Brits were in thrall to an idea that was horribly close to aspects of Nazism."

While the sinister ramifications of eugenics provide the backdrop to Pantheon, structurally the novel is a shoot-from-the-hip chase thriller in the Hitchcock tradition. Zennor is a man on the run, fuelled by anxiety for his family. "I think that is what emotionally powers the book," says Freedland, "the father longing and yearning, being parted from his child."

The juxtaposition of wartime Britain and peacetime America is perhaps the novel's most fascinating aspect. Few would have experienced the jarring of going from rationing to pizza parlours in 10 days, as Zennor and his family do. "Hardly anyone. These 125 children did, and their mothers. Churchill went across once, I think," says Freedland.

Therefore, placing the story at a time when Britain was losing the war and the US was still flush and staying neutral, was pivotal. And there is a nice irony to Freedland creating peril in a place called New Haven. Yale, like Princeton or Stanford, is the architectural equivalent of an X-Factor cover version. In the book Freedland describes it as "a kind of confidence trick" of carefully cultivated artifice. He could almost be describing one of his press-conference politicians.

Pantheon, By Sam Bourne (Harper £7.99)

"He had not let himself relax: he had paced the railway platform and the ship's deck or drummed his fingers like a man in a desperate hurry. He had maintained the urgency he had felt that first moment, when he had dashed out of the front door of their house in Norham Gardens, calling out their names. He might have crossed an ocean and half the world, but he still felt the fierce urgency of a man who had just lost his family ...."