Bloomsbury, £18.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

A Very English Hero: the Making of Frank Thompson, By Peter J Conradi

The brief life of a soldier-poet shows his chivalric idealism - and the sheer waste of war.

The brief life of Frank Thompson (1920-44) is a case study in the pity of war. His biographer calls him a Popular Front intellectual, an apprentice poet, and a scholar-soldier. His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography offers "poet and special operations officer" as characteristic of the active and the contemplative in this life well led. His comrade on an archaeological dig in Crete in 1938 identified a strain of "puppyish lunacy" leavening the seriousness, the chivalry, and the sacrifice.

Buy this book from the Independent bookshop

He joined up on 2 September 1939, the day before war was declared. Some friends followed suit. Thompson wrote a poem to one who joined the RAF: "You went, my friend,/ To spread your wings on the morning;/ I to the gun's cold elegance... Did you feel the passing of a shadow/ Between the glasses? – one will not return." The cold elegance meant the Royal Artillery. In July 1940 Thompson was posted to the GHQ Liaison Regiment, codenamed Phantom, trading in intelligence, reconnaissance, and the monitoring of communications across the Middle East. In September 1943 he joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Cairo. In January 1944 he was parachuted into occupied Macedonia, to lead a mission into Bulgaria.

Partisan operations in Bulgaria were cut-throat and chaotic. Harried by the Bulgarian army, and half-starved, they were betrayed in May 1944. Thompson was captured, interrogated, and shot. He was not yet 24.

An exemplary life brutally curtailed – it is difficult to read it any other way – gave place to a glorious afterlife. After stutters of official obfuscation and Cold War-like contention, posterity has been kind to Frank Thompson. In a sense this comes as no surprise. Posterity has been superintended by two of the most formidable representatives of English letters in the post-war period: the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, his inamorata, and by some accounts his betrothed; and the historian and campaigner EP Thompson, another scholar-soldier in the anti-Fascist cause, his younger brother.

Now he is fortunate in his biographer. Peter Conradi, also the biographer of Iris Murdoch, has a profound understanding of his world and his worldview – encapsulated here in character assessments, at once pithy and compelling, that verge on apothegms. "He was an 18-year-old sentimentalist, inexperienced and immature." "He had a nature riche, from which some instinct for self-preservation seems missing." "He was surely the least militant or military of men... His horror of violence was real." "Intimacy could only be snatched at. Yet in some ways the nomadism of war suited him."

Conradi is excellent on his fatalism and his laughter, and marvellously acute on his "devout internationalism". Thompson was a brilliant linguist. In February 1940, on Home Defence, he had time each night to study an hour's Russian, and to write a poem about Gogol, not to mention reading Gogol's Inspector-General in the original, translating Lermontov's poem "Youth's Testament", and revelling in Latin verse. "He belongs to that remote age when all gentlemen were presumed to share familiarity with the classical canon, and other languages too," Conradi notes. "His internationalism was one way of demonstrating anti-Fascism."

"The making of Frank Thompson" is in every sense an apt sub-title. "A very English hero" is perhaps more disputable. The product of the Dragon School, Winchester, and New College, Oxford, may indeed have had "a conventional mind formed along Wykehamical lines", as he told Iris Murdoch; but he was also a notable cosmopolitan, and above all a passionate European. "How wonderful it would be to call Europe one's fatherland," he wrote, "and think of Krakow, Munich, Rome, Arles, Madrid as one's own cities. My eyes very quickly fill with tears when I think of what a splendid Europe we shall build." He penned his own epitaph, published in The Times on VJ Day, 15 August 1945: "Write on the stones no words of sadness –/ Only the gladness due,/ That we, who asked the most of living,/ Knew how to give it, too."

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. His new biography of Cézanne is forthcoming

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?