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Richard Knott

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Family History

‘After a bad war…’


My book Posted in Wartime includes at the outset a quotation from Annette Kobak’s excellent book Joe’s War: ‘After a bad war… the officers stammer and the ranks become mute.’  My father was emphatically ‘other ranks’ and ‘Posted’ explores his silence.  This is an extract from the book’s opening:

I had always believed that he was a bespoke tailor before the war, living in the English Midlands, an ordinary man plying an unremarkable trade in one of England’s less green and pleasant towns.  More than six years after he died, the publication of the 1939 Register revealed him to be a ‘Forge Labourer.  Shell Factory.’  It was, dare I say it, a bombshell.  That revelation did not, however, alter the basic question: how different, I wondered,  would his overseas service have been from others like him; and, more tellingly perhaps, how much of a contrast would the experience of the more celebrated have been in similarly distant situations?  At much the same time as I was contemplating that comparison, I was loaned substantial bundles of letters written by two men whose war involved long journeys and prolonged absences from home.  Their evidence begged the question which would not go away: why would some write at such length while my father seemingly remained so silent?  Those letters and my father’s reluctance to communicate comprise a major strand in this book.  Woven into that story are the wartime experiences of three celebrities for whom the war also meant periods of exile: the photographer and designer Cecil Beaton; the playwright Noël Coward; and the traveller and writer Freya Stark.

 

Middle East Posting: Jack Knott and Freya Stark


 

Compared to some, my father Jack was an intrepid traveller, thinking nothing of driving through the night to Portugal or Austria in the post-war years.  But his love of the road was of a different order to Freya Stark’s who always assumed that any journey was possible, and a God-given right.  Perhaps that difference reflected their disparate backgrounds: hers – exotic, cosmopolitan, comfortable; Jack’s – urban, grey, short-lived, and narrow; Freya brought up in an artist’s sprawling house near Dartmoor, its grounds thick with rhododendrons; and my orphaned father from his Black Country two-up, two-down, with its weedy yard and outside privy.  She regarded the wider world as hers to explore; he, though, would have chosen to see the war out in gloomy boredom in some obscure RAF station in the English Home Counties.  That was all to change in 1942 when Jack was posted to the Middle East.

 

Did their paths ever cross?  It’s certainly possible.  Was he perhaps part of her police protection on one of the occasions when she passed through Habbaniya?  One thing is certain: Freya understood exactly why she was in Arabia, writing in her diary towards the end of March 1942, that ‘Hitler must make for oil or die.’  Jack was not a man to keep a diary, or care about the bigger picture.   He was there simply because his luck had run out and some miserable bugger behind a comfortable desk had decided that Jack Knott’s war would not be complete without taking in some years in the desert sun, and, before that, a long sea voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.

Another extract from ‘Posted in Wartime‘ (Pen & Sword, March 2017); the quotation from Freya Stark is from ‘Dust in the Lion’s Paw’, page 129.

 

‘You want to be careful with family history…’


‘You want to be careful with all this family history,’ Jack mumbled.  ‘You never know what you might find out.’  It was only much later that it occurred to me that that was precisely the point, the very purpose of research, to lay bare what had been hidden.  What on earth could I uncover that mattered so much?  Moreover, his dismissive resistance was guaranteed to have exactly the opposite effect from the one he wanted.  Was there some family secret that he was set on erasing from sight?  What if his taciturn defensiveness about the war was the result not of those miserable wartime postings, but because of something closer to home,  a painful memory of what had happened in his absence?  My brother was sure he could recall a uniformed man about the house, someone who was decidedly not our father.   Was he Canadian?  Or American?  ‘I was too young to realise any deep significance,’ Peter said, ‘and in any case it may have been entirely innocent.’  He remembered an idyllic day on the river, mother laughing and a stranger rowing with studied elegance.  There was a photograph he had seen – since lost – of our mother, smiling and carefree, under a spreading tree in the garden, with a man in air-force blue – a stranger to us both, but evidently not to her.  He even remembered the man’s name – Ron.   I joked about changing my name to Ronson and we laughed, uneasily, wondering whether this was a bit too close to the truth – and what else we didn’t know about our parents.

 

Another extract from ‘Posted in Wartime’, published this month in the UK by Pen & Sword.

Noel Coward and Jack Knott, Iraq 1943


RAF Habbanya, Iraq, 1943.

There is a photo in my possession where my father is sweltering in 130 degrees heat.  This is the RAF station at Habbaniya.  When he stepped out of the aircraft there, Noel Coward thought it like ‘stepping into a blast furnace’.  The day Noel entertained the men at Habbaniya, ‘my father must have been sitting in the audience; I can see him resolutely unmoved and the entertainer with a smile welded to his face, streaming with sweat, that clipped voice singing about an England that my father would only dimly have recognised.’

‘The routine of life in this distant outpost of Empire was lifted by such visitors passing through: politicians and comedians, soldiers and singers, either on their way to somewhere else, or there to make ‘Have a Banana’ – Habbaniya – seem that little bit closer to home.  Jack saw two TUC members en route to Moscow (he disapproved); Eden and Mountbatten (the kind of aristocrats whose sleek hair and well-cut clothes Jack sought to emulate and always felt marked out a man for great things); and the entertainers – Jack Benny (too slick); Larry Adler (not bad); Winnie Shaw (‘Boy what a girl she was!’);and Noël Coward (not really Jack’s sort of thing .)

Two extracts from chapter 10 of ‘Posted in Wartime‘.

 

 

‘Posted in Wartime’ – What’s It About?


‘Wartime exile then is a key theme in this book; it is what connects the six principal characters, both the celebrated and the unknown.  ‘Posted in Wartime’ has a double meaning of course: the first of which refers to the role and nature of written correspondence during the war – the impact, for example, of censorship and stretched lines of communication, the slow and unreliable postal service on which those sent abroad relied for news and reassurance.  Even, presumably, my tight-lipped father.   The second meaning concerns the despatching of  individuals to far corners of the world, sent hither and thither to fight, police, drive transports, administrate, liaise, or entertain.  That process was often the result of some anonymous civil servant’s whim or staff officer’s hunch which duly consigned someone to a rattling, cold Liberator or DC3, or a transcontinental train; or, more likely, some rusty troop-ship beating its way from one fly-blown port to another.’

That’s it basically.  The book is concerned with the following key issues/newsworthy items: what wartime service does to people; the nature of exile; how people’s background determines the kind of war one faced; and how wartime service changes lives forever.  There are a number of very topical locations in the book as well, including Iraq and Palestine.

In addition there are a significant number of interesting people who appear within the book, including:   Tony Benn, Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Greta Garbo and Evelyn Waugh.  I’ll provide some more information tomorrow about the book’s main characters, including my mysterious father!

 

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