Wartime Courage, By Gordon Brown

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The Independent Culture

This year, Gordon Brown has made something of a habit of surprise guest-star roles at literary events. He materialised for an interview with Sebastian Faulks at the London Book Fair, and with Ian Rankin at the Edinburgh book festival. At Earls Court in April, I heard him talk with unfeigned passion and fluency about the research into the contrasting faces of Second World War heroism that lies behind his book. It arrives less than 18 months after his "eight portraits" of courage in civil and political life, from Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi to Edith Cavell and Martin Luther King. Wartime Courage confirms that the PM's dogged desire to keep his old craft skills as a historian alive by investigating the conditions that make for bold, brave and decisive action is more than just a politician's whim. Every saver or borrower with a British bank should, perhaps, be grateful for the focus of his hobby.

Courage: Eight Portraits suffered from too many stiff platitudes, but warmed up when Brown engaged with his less widely sanctified subjects. Compared to its predecessor, this book unfolds in an even more reverent mood: a hushed awe that begins when Brown recalls the Remembrance Days of his Kirkcaldy youth, "the solemnity... still tinged with bereavement". You do not apply to this address for debunking – but we already knew that. The book's proceeds will go to the Royal British Legion poppy appeal, and the author's own, more personal, project, the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory.

Wartime Courage collects 11 compact essays which record the deeds of men and women whose bravery made a difference to the British and Allied war effort from 1939 to 1945. Their stories, carefully chronicled and swiftly told, range from the front-line derring-do of the Teesside warrior Stanley Hollis on D-Day to the clandestine exploits of the SOE agent Violette Szabo in France; from the stalwart kindness and altruism of Scots missionary Eric Liddell in a Japanese prison camp in China to the Royal Artillery sergeant-major Charles Coward who, as a POW in a nearby Stalag, managed to fix the paperwork that spirited more than 400 Jews out of the Auschwitz complex.

If some of the careers and incidents recounted here sound familiar, such as Bill Slim's ascent from Midlands officer to the conqueror who re-took Burma from the Japanese, then others will strike most readers as real revelations. It's comforting to see that the PM keeps an eye on infrastructure as the key to national success. So he tells the astonishing story of the railway crew who, at Soham a week before D-Day, found themselves in charge of a train loaded with bombs destined for US aircraft – just as it began to catch fire.

Any half-awake pundit will have fun tracing the connections between Brown's own laborious and sometimes stumbling trudge through politics and his fixation on those combatants who persevere under "intense and sustained pressure" – thanks, in large part, to their "sheer professionalism". "To be surrounded", Brown writes about Slim in Burma, "had become an opportunity to prevail". Could it be that the once-encircled battler who broke free from his besiegers with a bold and cunning plan has actually learned something useful from history?

Just as Brown does not scoff at his heroes, so no one should scoff at his book. Yet, as a historian, he deserves the respect of proper criticism. First, his tone too often kills his tale. That wooden Remembrance Sunday piety muffles the emotional – and historical – force of these accounts in a blanket of dutiful clichés. Brown can slip too readily into the robotic neutrality of a medal citation, as when a pilot in a half-wrecked bomber "pressed home his attack... with the utmost determination and resolution".

Worse than this engine-drone monotone is an absence of context that leaves these stirring yarns bereft of wider meaning except as homilies on an abstract virtue. That doomed pilot was returning from the first "1000 bomber" raid, on Cologne in 1942. Yet Brown scarcely pauses to reflect on the ethics of the "area bombing" that flattened German cities and incinerated civilians except to note weakly that Arthur "Bomber" Harris is "a controversial figure". Tell that to Dresden. Broadly as he draws its boundaries, there is still no room on the PM's map of courage for the principled dissent of a figure such as George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who attacked the "barbarism" of Bomber Command's strategy.

When does understatement shade into outright evasion? When, for instance, Brown touches on the background to Slim's Burma fightback by writing that "India's departure from the British Empire was already being discussed" as the Japanese advanced in 1942. Well, yes – if "discussion" means a subcontinental storm of unrest and disobedience, with scores of thousands of Indians (unmentioned by Brown) deserting a detested Raj to fight for Japan via the proxy of Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army. In fact, this upheaval makes Slim's turnaround as the last-ditch leader who won the respect of Indian and African – as well as British – troops even more extraordinary as a case study of courage in adversity.

Far from protecting Brown's cherished heroes, this mealy-mouthed avoidance of "controversial" issues simply downgrades their achievement. For any historian, courage must also mean the willingness to look into the messy, ravaged face of the past and still discern the beauty there. Under Dr Brown's cosmetic care, the features of wartime heroism glow with an unearthly sheen. But this handbook of secular martyrs seldom seems to grasp that, in history, only the whole truth can set us free.

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