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Richard Knott

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Second World War

Places in ‘Posted in Wartime’ 3: Cyprus, 1946


Another extract from my ‘Posted in Wartime’ (Pen & Sword 2017), this time about the mismatch between the beauty of Cyprus and the plight of Jewish ‘illegal immigrants’…

 

Later that autumn Donald drove into the mountains, to a resort near the summit of Mount Olympus, at the wheel of a grandly proportioned Chevrolet staff-car, ‘the sort of thing that Brigadiers and Generals ride around in.’  A man raised his cap as the limousine progressed in stately fashion through a white-stoned village.  ‘Perhaps,’ Donald reflected, ‘he thought we were a hearse.’    A series of hairpin bends slowly revealed clusters of red-roofed villages and churches with ‘sugar-icing belfries’ in the valley below.  Vines clung to the precipitous  hillside.  As they climbed, poplar and beech trees were replaced by pine and juniper.    Donald stopped for sweet Turkish coffee, and bought some apples, before travelling on towards Troodos.  There, through a break in the cloud, ‘round the hoary head of old Olympus’, he could see the whole of the island spread out below him and the blue, glittering sweep of the Mediterranean.  There was no barbed wire to be seen, or camp huts, just the winding road, the island’s coastline and the occasional sprawl of people’s homes.  The weekend over, he drove back to Nicosia along a ‘switchback highway,’ stunned by the island’s beauty, its tree-clad hills, the golden sunset, and ‘the intense rose and purple of the hills which shared the afterglow’ as twilight fell.  Back in the valley floor, speeding towards Nicosia, he soon began to think of what lay ahead, rather than the idyll of the past few days, and his return to the camp was as dispiriting as he feared.  Officers in the mess were huddled ‘around the blazing hearth in an atmosphere of choking cigarette smoke,’ and when night fell it brought the first chill of autumn.  Soon after, 850 more Jewish ‘illegal immigrants’ arrived by sea.

Places in ‘Posted in Wartime’ 2. – London to Land’s End, 1943


Cecil Beaton sets out for India in late 1943 to work for the Ministry of Information – from Chapter 11…

 

The departure from a cold, bleak Paddington station was inauspicious and Beaton was glad to stop en route at Lord Berners’ exotic country house near Farringdon in Wiltshire.  The next day he flew on to Land’s End where he was obliged to settle for a frustrating wait, only brightened by the dazzling good looks of the Canadian pilot who was to fly them south.  Eventually the Dakota was cleared for take-off but crashed almost immediately, a tongue of flame licking through the cabin before the whole aircraft became swathed in a dense cloud of thick orange smoke.  With an explosion likely, it was necessary to get out of the aircraft as soon as possible and Cecil found himself by the open door,  observing others on board jumping out into the darkness.  It was clearly better than burning to death, but there was no knowing how far he might fall….

What happened next?  Find out in my book Posted in Wartime’ (Pen & Sword).

Places in ‘Posted in Wartime’: 1. Cairo


Cairo was a kind of wartime Clapham Junction, people constantly passing through on their slow journey to some posting far from home.  Almost all the main protagonists of my book Posted in Wartime were there at some time or other, occasionally on the same day.  The two in this extract are a good example.  The date is early 1945…

Donald Macdonald arrived in Cairo soon after the assassination of Lord Moyne.  I like to think that he and Jack might unwittingly have passed each other on an Egyptian street, though clearly not in one of the places in the city where ‘Other Ranks’ were unwelcome or forbidden.  To Donald, after weeks at sea, and years of blackout darkness, Egypt’s extravagant lights and riotous noise were a revelation.  Everything about Cairo was a shock to the system, be it the ‘utterly oriental’ railway station – ‘ yellow ochre in colour, with turrets, battlements and grilles, it might be a sultan’s palace;’ the continual hooting of horns; the Nile ‘busy with feluccas and the old paddle steamers’; the street Arabs who ‘actually cultivated Glasgow accents,’ the better to ingratiate themselves with the troops; the city streets ‘strewn with orange skins, loud with street cries, (and) the drone of tramways.’

 

Posted in Wartime by Richard Knott (Pen & Sword, 2017)

‘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.

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!

 

Following Clifford


 One summer we took an Amtrak train across America, from New York to San Francisco.  Some nights we slept on board, while the train roared west, blowing its forlorn whistle as it passed lonely crossings in the darkened plains.  Standard sleeping accommodation was minimal – our cat, we joked, had more room in her luxury quarters at her cats’ hotel ( ‘the Ritz’ as we called it.)   We had upgraded (wise move!) though lying in the top bunk, nose inches from the carriage roof, it was no easy ride.  The blanket encased me like a straitjacket, while the descent down the ladder in the middle of the night, as the train rocked and rolled, was fraught with hazard.  An expedition to the ‘bathroom’ was not readily undertaken.

 

In the early morning, approaching Los Angeles, we breakfasted with two tartan-shirted ancients in caps: the restaurant car attendants insisted on the passengers socialising – the protocol was ‘Side by side!’  One ancient was hard of hearing, while both, it turned out, were in their nineties.  Brothers, they had been back to Kansas for a college reunion.  ‘Who slept on the top bunk?’ I asked empathetically.  ‘Me,’ said the 90 year old, ‘He made me − I’m his kid brother.’  The older brother was 95 and had flown Catalina flying boats in World War 2.  Daniel Boone was a distant ancestor.  They were amazing company: charming, witty and so alive.  Not for the first time, we were glad of the Amtrak custom that required eating with strangers.

 

Little seems to have changed on the night Pullman in America over sixty years, though our breakfast companions would have been young men then.  The sleeping arrangements were the same: ‘one can book a “drawing room”… a private compartment with a sleeping berth, or a “compartment” which is smaller and private, or a “section”… top and bottom curtained bunks.’  So wrote Jenny Nicholson, the daughter of Robert Graves, on board the Pullman from Charleston to Palm Beach one night in March 1947.  ‘Towards bedtime,’ she wrote in The Sickle and the Stars, a steward ‘arrived, and with a swift series of pushes, pulls, heaves and hitches the alcove was converted into the top and bottom berth.’   Like me, her dining companion was chosen by the sassy dining-car attendant.  She ‘shared a table in the “diner” with a boy of twelve wearing plus fours who was behaving with proud assurance’.  Reading her description, I felt I was sitting at the next table, looking out at America in the morning light, transported across both a continent and time.

 

I had come to The Sickle and the Stars by way of Nicholson’s husband.  Alexander Clifford was a war correspondent whose account of the north African campaign, Three Against Rommel, I had read with admiration.   He and Alan Moorehead were two of the most significant correspondents of the 1939-1945 conflict.  They had first met in the Bar Basque in St Jean-de-Luz in 1938, both drawn to this corner of France by the Civil War over the border. It was an inauspicious first meeting, but when they bumped into each other in Athens months later, a night of ouzo turned wariness to liking.  As Moorehead later wrote, they ‘agreed to continue our travels together’.

 

Once the world war broke out, the two of them sought to ensure that they were posted together to Cairo.  In Moorehead’s poignant memoir A Late Education  he describes the plan which would exploit the rivalry between their respective newspapers: ‘Alex would wire his paper: “Moorehead of the Express proceeding to Cairo stop shall I follow?’ while I warned my people that Clifford of the Mail was setting off in the same direction…. Automatically the telegrams from London came back: “Follow Clifford,” “Follow Moorehead”, and Alex and I booked our passages to Cairo’.   They flew by flying boat, alighting at one point in Suda Bay, Crete, where the steward opened the aircraft door allowing the newspapermen to gaze down ‘into sparkling water that had the same colour and transparency as the sky.’  The sun’s rays illuminated deep water, shoals of fish flickered around the flying boat’s silver hull and Clifford and Moorehead stripped off and ‘dived straight into the water from the open doorway’.   They became, if not inseparable, then the closest of friends.  In the desert they played bridge, talked under the stars while drinking whisky nightcaps, stood on the roofs of armoured cars to watch desperate tank battles.  Sharing tents, transport, danger and conversation, heat, flies, bitter winters, sandstorms, and demanding editors back in London, their friendship was a kind of marriage.

 

Moorehead’s despatches during the war were prolific, widely read and made him famous.  My father-in-law was sufficiently excited by his presence on board a Paris-bound Dakota flight in October 1945 that he made a point of noting the great man’s presence in his navigator’s logbook.  After the war was over and wanting to establish himself as a great novelist, Moorehead struggled with his writing until he found his niche.  Clifford was to be denied the time to make a new career: The Sickle and the Stars was one of only two books he wrote after 1945.  He had married Jenny Nicholson that year and, two years later, they both set out in opposite directions – she to the United States and he to Russia – for a two month period, charged with sending despatches to their respective newspapers.  They also wrote long, wide-eyed letters to each other describing what they saw.  The book is the drawing together of that correspondence.  There is little sense of passion for each other in the writing, but the picture they construct of two civilisations poised on the brink of the final world war is remarkable:  Clifford comments at one point about Jenny’s letters that it is as if she is on Mars.

 

They both write elegantly, while the contrast between the different worlds they inhabit is stark.  Jenny’s Pullman journeys across the States are echoed by Alex’s Russian train which was ‘pure Anna Karenina … art nouveau brasswork … pink silk curtains and shaded lamps everywhere and a communal samovar at the end of each coach.’  Russia was flat and endless, heavy with snow-bound melancholy.  America was bright and noisy, its citizens warm and hospitable, and expecting a war with ‘the Ruskies’ sooner rather than later.

 

Jenny Nicholson flits from one social whirl to the next, and travels by plane, train and car with an unbounded energy.  Men flirt with her.  She likes drugstores  − ‘remarkably attractive corner places where they sell everything from a fried egg to a hot water bottle.’  America!  Juke boxes, chocolate sundaes, Oklahoma and Annie Get Your Gun, … ‘the lighted hulk of Brooklyn’ and the ‘mysterious silky waters of the Hudson’, bubble gum – ‘a new form of chewing gum which you can blow out of your mouth like a soap bubble. Very nasty.’   The US is bright, shining and efficient, or so Clifford is persuaded by his wife’s bubbling account. She is wary though of some aspects of American life: advertising is regarded with great suspicion: ‘With a well-advertised campaign you would persuade all the mothers in the country …to feed their children on a diet of orange peel and vodka.’

 

Nicholson’s journey takes her across a rolling Atlantic bound for New York (she is distinctly queasy and wonders why ‘If Britain rules the waves – why doesn’t she rule them straight?’); then Washington (‘gentle and pretty and I wish you were here’); and on to South Carolina and Palm Beach.  In New Orleans she hears a ‘roguish businessman from Pittsburgh’ tell a ‘spinsterish-looking lady…: “Now we don’t ever need to go to Europe – can’t be nothing gives in Europe any better’n we’re seeing tonight – this is genuwine Paris – take it from me – I was in Paris, France.”’  She heads up the Mississippi to Natchez, then west for Dallas and El Paso.  In Los Angeles she visits the film studios and sees Michael Redgrave, Alfred Hitchcock – a friend who sends her red roses, and is seen hard at work on a movie (‘All right, then.  How about us making a moving picture?’); and Gregory Peck, her favourite film star who ‘is even more attractive eating a sandwich’.  And so, at roughly the same time as Clifford is contemplating a flight to war-battered Stalingrad, she is moving on from Beverley Hills to Salt Lake City and Denver.

 

Alexander Clifford’s attitude to Russia is wary, cautious, watchful.  His flight to Stalingrad he dreads, writing on 12 April, 1947, ‘This may be my last letter to you, if it is true about Russian aeroplane engines never being warmed up, and the pilots being dumpy little ex-schoolmistresses, and freight-loads being simply a matter of testing whether or not the plane will leave the ground.’  For the most part, he remains in Moscow, staying in a tenth floor hotel room – ‘small and clean and bare, with the double windows cemented up for the winter.’  It is cold, expensive and strange.  The conference he is attending – of foreign ministers – begins drearily and doesn’t improve; the weather is grim; dinner doesn’t usually happen till eleven at night.

 

Early in April, Clifford took the night sleeper to Leningrad – it prompted more thoughts of Tolstoy.  The sleeping car attendant spoke of the hardship of the city’s siege during the war and held the prevailing Russian view that the west made little serious effort to win it.  Post-war propaganda, it seemed, suggested that the British ‘were basically in sympathy with Hitler.’  For someone like Clifford, who travelled ceaselessly in acute discomfort, waiting for mines to explode or the Luftwaffe to sweep in low, this must have been particularly galling.

 

Sixty four years after Clifford caught the Red Arrow sleeper from Moscow to Leningrad, I followed him, arriving in St Petersburg at a time of the year when the sun scarcely sets.  The train from Helsinki was sleek and modern, more Eurostar than Anna Karenina, while the journey was through a remorseless landscape of forests and lakes.  In 2011, the Russian border was still marked with wire and watchtowers.  I stepped out on the same platform as Clifford, and later stared in awe, like him, at the city’s ‘vast space and magnificence’.

 

Clifford wrestles too with the nature of communism and what was to become of the world.  In Stalingrad he sees, outside his hotel window, a large family living in the ruins of a cellar, its roof long gone, replaced by a web of machine gun belts.  Nearby is another family living in a hole covered by the shell of an old taxi-cab.  He ends his final letter by noting that Russia knows where it is going and how, while America has no such plan or objectives: ‘she makes a programme of not having a programme.’  The day after Clifford wrote that, Jenny is homeward bound, flying in a BOAC Constellation, looking forward to meeting Alex in London and a life together, a resumed marriage, with no need to write such letters again.  She suggests the idea of a book: ‘We seem to have written a great deal to each other in these past months.’

 

Their book was duly published in January 1949.  Its cover is a communistic red, with merged stars and stripes.  Jenny Nicholson, pictured on the inside flap, looks pert, glossy-haired, poised – conclusively pretty.  Alexander Clifford is in uniform, bespectacled, with a high forehead.  He looks unassuming, mild, warm-hearted, and, yes, handsome.  You hope for a long, happy life together for them.  It was not to be.   Clifford died in 1952 of Hodgkin’s disease, while Jenny Nicholson married again – another war correspondent − but also died young.  Even the glittering Moorehead was treated cruelly: a stroke denying him the ability to write and talk in the way he once he had.

 

The Sickle and the Stars provides a bright window on a world where Russians and Americans thought that the next war was just a fleeting moment away.  Reading it, I warmed to Clifford’s seriousness and humanity.  Having followed his wartime progress, I felt I knew him well.  Jenny Nicholson was the surprise − that youthful energy and evident joy in living!  I imagine the two of them, each holding a copy of their new book in that spring of 1949, arms around each other and careless of the future.  If occasionally they saw dark clouds, they weren’t for their own lives, but for the world.   It was just three short years before Alan Moorehead found himself at Clifford’s deathbed:  ‘What was there to say except that I loved him?’

 

 

 

Jenny Nicholson and Alexander Clifford’s book The Sickle and the Stars is out of print.  If you want more on the two of them, and Alan Moorehead, you’ll find their detailed story in my book The Trio published in 2015 by The History Press.

 

 

 

 

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