When Liz MacRae Shaw was researching her third novel, Had We Never Loved So Blindly, a love story set during the Second World War, she thought the background to her story would be well-covered in historical fiction. But, she tells Historia, she was in for a surprise.
The Second World War is such a popular topic for fiction that I assumed that my particular areas of interest – the Merchant Navy and Bletchley Park – would be well represented in current literature. After all, in researching my new novel I had found plenty of non-fiction material on these subjects.
It has long been acknowledged that the merchant seamen were the unsung heroes of the conflict in carrying out their role of keeping Britain supplied with essential imports. Although they were civilians, they suffered a higher casualty rate than members of the Armed Forces. Up to 185,000 seamen served in the Merchant Navy and 25% of them died in enemy action, were wounded, or taken prisoner.
Incredibly, until 1941 surviving merchant seamen on British vessels destroyed by enemy action received no payment from the moment that their ship sunk. Time spent in open lifeboats until they were rescued was considered ’non-working time’ by the shipping companies that employed them.
My first port of call was the classic account of convoy duty in the Atlantic, The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Montserrat, first published in 1951. It has worn well. The author’s expert knowledge, based on his own wartime experience, and the emotional restraint of his characters give the story authority and conviction. Although we expect and dread the sinking of HMS Compass Rose the event itself and the aftermath come as a shock:
There was no room for them on the two rafts: there never had been room. Some sat or lay on them, some gripped the ratlines that hang down from their sides, some swam around in hopeful circles, or clung to other luckier men who had found a place. The bobbing red lights converged on the rafts: as the men swam, they gasped with fear and cold and icy waves hit them in the face, and oil went up their nostrils and down their throats. Their hands were quickly numbed, and then their legs. And then the cold probed deep within them… They thrashed about wildly, they tried to shoulder a place at the rafts, and were pushed away again. They swam around and around in the darkness, calling out, cursing their comrades, crying for help, slobbering their prayers.
This book is mainly about the Royal Navy and I hoped to find something about merchant sailors in more recent writing. However, there were very lean pickings and the nearest I could find was David Black’s Turn Left for Gibraltar, about Sub-Lieutenant Harry Gilmour, who is aboard a submarine in the Mediterranean. Again, it is not written from the perspective of the merchant seaman. Also, its stilted dialogue means that it lacks the visceral punch of Montserrat’s writing. I came to the conclusion that writing about the war at sea is a predominantly male pursuit and mainly confined to non-fiction and memoir.
I felt more hopeful about investigating fiction written about Bletchley Park. I had read many excellent factual accounts and there are also two well-known films on the subject, The Imitation Game, based on a book about Alan Turing, and Enigma, based on Robert Harris’s book of the same name.
Harris’s well-researched and atmospheric thriller about Bletchley Park conveys brilliantly the wartime atmosphere of frenetic code breaking, intense secrecy and professional jealousies. His descriptions of the drabness of wartime existence are vivid; for example, the stomach turning food, such as whale meat:
Boiled potatoes in a curdled yellow grease and a slab of something ribbed and grey. He stabbed at the lump with his fork, then lifted a fragment cautiously to his mouth. It tasted like fishy liver, like congealed cod liver oil.
Although cut off from the outside world the desperate urgency of their task in deciphering the U-boat codes is described as follows:
Three hit so far. A Norwegian freighter and a Dutch cargo ship. They just went straight to the bottom. The third’s on fire and going round in circles. Half the crew lost, the other half trying to save her… it’s a slaughter, an absolute bloody slaughter. And shall I tell you the worst of it? It’s going to go on and on like this for days. They’re going to be chased and harried and torpedoed right the way across the bloody North Atlantic Can you imagine what that feels like? Watching the ship next to you blow up? Not being allowed to stop and search for survivors? Waiting for your turn?
Enigma was published in 1995. What about more recent novels that feature Bletchley Park? I found several examples, but they seemed lightweight in comparison with Harris’s book.
In The 9.45 to Bletchley by Madelyn Morgan the main character, Ena Dudley, delivers equipment to Bletchley Park. Her colleague Henry comes to her rescue when she is accused of allowing her equipment to be stolen on the train and replaced by a faulty version.
‘There’s a train to Rugby in two minutes or’, he raised an eyebrow, ’we could have a cup of tea in the buffet. But if we do that, you’ll have to get the 4.25 and you’ll be late getting back. What do you think?’
‘Tea, please. I’m parched.’…
Henry joined her after ordering them both tea. When the waitress brought the cups over, she also had a thin slice of Victoria sponge on the tray. ‘I wanted to buy you something nice by way of a peace offering but that’s all they had left. It looks a bit dry.’
The waitress looked down her nose and with more than a little sarcasm in her voice, said, ‘If it isn’t good enough for you, sir, I’ll take it back.’
I thought what fun Victoria Wood would have had, turning this dialogue into a spoof version of Brief Encounter, with Julie Waters as the waitress.
So, we seem to have a gendered world of chick lit literature about Bletchley Park and stiff upper lipped naval sagas. Time for a fresh crop of writing!
And in Romance or realism? she looks back at the legacy of Sir Walter Scott.
A Merchant Seaman Comes To Town – the work of the Merchant Navy Club, Piccadilly, London, 1942 by Jack Smith, Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer: Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia
The Merchant Navy during the Second World War. The mate of the tanker MV Empire Unity, John Waters, who is responsible to the captain for the working of the ship, taking a compass reading whilst the ship was in convoy by Lieut RGG Coote, Royal Navy official photographer: Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence via Wikimedia
Photo of Bletchley Park: supplied by author. ‘To their right, a lawn sloped down to a lake fringed by large trees. To their left was a mansion – a long, low, late Victorian monstrosity of red brick and sand coloured stone’ (Enigma by Robert Harris)
A Colossus Mark 2 codebreaking computer being operated by Dorothy Du Boisson (left) and Elsie Booker (right), 1943: © The National Archives via Wikimedia