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Richard Knott

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Noel Coward

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‘.

 

 

Jack of Arabia: why the secrecy?


The original title of ‘Posted in Wartime’ was Jack of Arabia.  Jack, my father, served in the RAF during World War 2 but carefully avoided talking about his experiences during the four years he was overseas.  After he died I wanted to explore where he went and why he was so secretive about it.  There was a further mystery: was my father actually back in England in time after the war to be my father?!   That was where the book began.  He left no letters at all (although a lot of photographs) and when I was given two extensive sets of letters written by others who had spent much time abroad, I decided to write a book which related their lives to my father’s, their sustained correspondence with his silence. Soon after I became intrigued about how the lives of celebrated exiles – like Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton and Freya Stark – compared.  The book stitches the six of them together, uncovering in the process some unexpected connections.  For example, there was the day midway through the war when my father and Noel Coward’s paths crossed…

‘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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