The romance of running away

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The Independent Online

There's a dismaying moment at the beginning of the Imperial War Museum's Great Escapes exhibition.

There's a dismaying moment at the beginning of the Imperial War Museum's Great Escapes exhibition. You turn a corner into the gallery to find yourself looking at a detailed set for the Aardman Animations film Chicken Run, and if, like me, you have a suspicious nature, you may conclude that a shameful act of surrender has taken place.

The calculation would seem to go along the following lines: the Second World War was a long time ago, popular culture has already commandeered the subject of escapes from German prisoner-of-war camps, better put something in to keep the kiddies on board. And while the object itself is strangely alluring - as all detailed models are - it does rather seem to displace the experiences that are at the heart of the show. Was it all for this, you think, the scramble from the burning plane, the trauma of capture and incarceration, the determination of the escapers? To end up ceding pride of place to a collection of comedy chickens?

The dismay doesn't last very long, I'm glad to say. Great Escapes pays its dues to the gods of the short attention span, with a regular supply of the interactive flaps, buttons and drawers that now seem indispensable to any museum exhibition, but it's also a beautifully designed and often moving show. And Chicken Run is there for a purpose besides candy-coating. It's a reminder that the fascination with escapes wasn't just a transitory phenomenon of the post-war period (when many of the veterans published their first accounts) but has soaked deep into the culture. These are stories, you occasionally feel, that are already beginning the slow petrification into myth.

When I was at school there was no great mystery about the appeal of Eric Williams's The Wooden Horse or Paul Brickhill's The Great Escape. The heroes of these books talked and even behaved like schoolboys. Their furtiveness in the face of authority was a mirror of our own. They mucked about after lights out and evaded regulations with a boldness that we could only envy. And though we often casually described our jailers as "fascists" (it was that time of the century), theirs really were. We didn't read much Emily Dickinson but, like her, our souls responded to the very concept of the getaway. "I never hear the word 'Escape'/ Without a quicker blood,/ A sudden expectation -/ A flying attitude!"

You don't have to have done time in a British boarding school to respond to the romance of the escapers, though. Dickinson's lines perfectly capture the spirit these cases exude, with their repeated demonstration that many escapers treated obstacles as opportunities to rise a little higher. This was rather literally the case with one of the largest exhibits on show - a reconstruction of the gingham-covered glider that was secretly constructed in a Colditz attic - and which (had the Americans not arrived first) would have been launched out of a dismantled gable end. But it's also apparent in items that have nothing to do with escape at all, at least not in its literal sense. Some prisoners created wall-newspapers and magazines, hand-lettering every article in painstaking imitation of printed fonts. Another constructed his own loom out of wood and wove his own prison-camp tweed. And though some of these techniques were applied to escape attempts, in producing forged documents and disguises, there's also a sense that they set out to deny the prison walls by erasing the differences between inside and out. If they had motoring magazines in Blighty, they were damn well going to have them in Germany, too.

The Germans eventually issued a proclamation announcing that "escaping is not a sport", and they backed this announcement up with executions in the case of the mass escape from Stalag Luft III. But, despite the gravity of the penalties for failure, it's difficult to extinguish a sense of relished competition that this exhibition generates. The term given to successfully completed escape attempts, after all, was "home-runs". More pointedly, nobody has ever thought to make a popular movie about those prisoners who successfully faked illnesses that persuaded the German authorities to repatriate them. Absurd as it might be, that feels like a kind of cheating to us, a short-cut to the goal-line. Because what we value in all escape stories is less the end result (always anticlimactic) than the manner in which it is achieved.

In Chicken Run, the birds finally win their freedom by constructing a poultry-powered plane and soaring above the barbed-wire fences to a chicken utopia in the country. What you see in Great Escapes is more earthbound, but if it's a flying attitude you're after, it can't easily be beaten.