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PLENTY UNDER THE COUNTER . . . Between the covers

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T redhis 1943 novel by Kathleen Hewitt is the third in the excellent series of Imperial War Museum reprints of wartime classics, but couldn’t be more different from the first two, From The City, From The Plough and Trial By Battle. Whereas they were both literary novels shot through with harrowing accounts of men in battle, Plenty Under The Counter is an almost jolly affair, a conventional murder mystery set against the trials, tribulations and financial opportunities of civilian life in wartime London.

PUTC coverA jolly murder? Well, of course. Fictional murders can be range from brutal to comic depending on the genre, and although the corpse found in the back garden of Mrs Meake’s lodging house – 15 Terrapin Road – is just as dead as any described by Val McDermid or Michael Connelly, the mood is set by the chief amateur investigator, a breezy and frightfully English RAF pilot called David Heron on recuperation leave from his squadron, and his elegantly witty lady friend Tess. He is from solid county stock:

“There was his Aunt Jane, enduring the full horror of only having two servants to wait on her. There was an uncle, retired from the Indian Army, now clinging like a cobweb to the musty armchairs in his club.”

R redeaders will not need a degree in 20th century social history to recognise that the book’s title refers to the methods used by shopkeepers to circumvent the official rationing of food and fancy goods. More sinister is the presence – both in real life and in the book – of criminals who exploit the shortages to make serious money playing the black market and for whom deadly violence is just a way of life.

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Hewitt gives us plenty of Waugh-ish social satire on the way, partly courtesy of David’s friend Bob Carter, a young man with what they used to call ‘a dodgy ticker’. Turned down from active service he expends his energy on extracting donations from rich people in order to open a bizarre club, where he hopes that people of all nations (barring Jerry, the Eyeties and the Nips, of course) will mingle over a glass or two and thus further the cause of nation speaking unto nation. There is also the grotesque Annie, who serves as Mrs Meake’s maid of all work. Annie is painfully thin, a little short of six feet tall, and the first thing that most people see of her when she enters a room is her teeth.

T redhe ingredients simmering away in the pot of this murder mystery are exotic. There is Mrs Meake, matronly now in her middle age, but still dreaming of the days when she was a beauty in the chorus line on the London stage; her daughter Thelma, a thoroughly spoiled brat who has movie aspirations above her ability; also, who was the swarthy seafaring man trying to sell a fancy-handled knife in the local pub? David’s fellow residents at 15 Terrapin Road are a study in themselves – Cumberbatch, the retired rubber planter with a secret in his room; Lipscott, the Merchant Navy man besotted with a waif-like girl, and the misanthropic Smedley, with his limp and a sudden need for £100.

Kathleen Hewitt WC_01_AThe story rattles along in fine style as the hours tick by before David has to return to the war. He has two pressing needs. One is to buy the special licence which will enable him to marry Tess, and the other is to find the Terrapin Road murderer. Hewitt (right) is too good a writer to leave her story lightly bobbing about on the bubbles of wartime champagne (probably a toxic mix of white wine and ginger ale) and she darkens the mood in the last few pages, leaving us to ponder the nature of tragedy and self-sacrifice.

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TRIAL BY BATTLE . . . Between the covers

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Alan Mart is a bookish, completely unmiitary young man who, fresh from Cadet College, is posted as a Second Lieutenant to an Indian Army Battalion in the autumn of 1941. The Japanese army is on the move, but are still believed to be just swarms of little yellow men who will melt away when faced with troops led by decent British officers. Mart is taken under the wing of Acting Captain Sam Holl:

“Holl rose from his chair. He seemed to go on rising for an interminable time, lurching from one side to the other, before he found his stature. He was a large-boned man, corded with muscle unsoftened by any spare flesh; his khaki bush shirt and slacks looked flimsy on him, and his rather small squarish head inadequate as a terminal for his torso. He had pale grey eyes, a thin mouth, and a thin pale feathering of hair, delicate and shallow as seedlings. His teeth were yellowish, with an exclamation of pure gold on the left hand side, and he sucked a great deal at them.”

Trial coverThe figure of Sam Holl struck an immediate chord with me, and I wondered momentarily where I had met him before. He is a more warlike version of Guy Crouchback’s brother in arms, Apthorpe. In Men At Arms (1951) and Officers And Gentlemen (1955) Evelyn Waugh gives us a pompous and priggish chap with completely bogus military and social airs and graces. He invites us to scorn Apthorpe and his pretensions while slyly revealing the pathos of Apthorpe’s real identity; probably an orphan, brought up by an elderly aunt; sent to a very minor public school, and packed of, virtually penniless, to serve in some down at heel colonial service. When Apthorpe dies in hospital as a result of Crouchback having smuggled him a bottle of whisky, the comedy turns to tragedy, and our mockery turns to shame-faced guilt.

Despite Alan Mart being our eyes and ears as the real war gets nearer and nearer to the battalion, Holl is, literally and metaphorically, a towering figure. He has the worst aspects of the blinkered British imperialist, but he displays immense physical courage. His bluster, near alcoholism and debased view of native women contrast poignantly with moments of extreme social vulnerability:

“They stood in the moonlight. There was nothing left except to go to bed, but they hesitated.
‘Good night, Holl,’ said Alan.
‘Good night,’ and Holl turned. But after a few steps, he stopped.
‘Alan.’
‘Yes.’
‘You might call me Sam.’
‘Oh. Of course. I’m sorry. Good night, Sam.’
‘Good night, Alan.'”

Mart goes off to train as a Signals Officer, and treads in the footsteps of his Victorian forbears as he becomes an expert operator of the Heliograph. When he returns to Battalion, however, he finds he has a stack of boxes containing brand new shiny radio sets. In a stroke worthy of Joseph Heller, we learn that all the battalion vehicles have been painted out in wonderful desert camouflage designed to baffle Rommel and his men in the deserts of North Africa – the unit’s undoubted destination. Africa or Iraq here we come? Not a bit of it. The Battalion embarks in a shabby tramp steamer. Destination? The dense rubber plantations and jungle of Malaya.

When Mart and Holl reach Malaya they learn many things, few if any of them to their advantage. The sparkling new radio sets abjectly refuse to work over any distance further than the line of sight and, more disturbing still, the despised little yellow men are resolutely disinclined to scatter at the bark of a British military command. Quite the reverse; they are numerous, well trained, superbly equipped, utterly remorseless and, seemingly, irresistible.

PiperDavid Piper’s biography is covered comprehensively in the publicity for this series, so suffice it to say he writes of what he knows. I am reminded of the lines from the old hymn;

“We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains he had to bear.”

Unlike so many of his comrades, he did survive the brutality of Japan’s POW camps which, although well documented, still take the breath away for their unrivalled sadism and absence of the tiniest evidence of humanity. Trial By Battle is a beautifully written account of men and war; there is no sweeping narrative, no epic battle scenes (but those described are terrifyingly vivid) and no broad historical context. Instead Piper zooms in on the fascinating anthill of conflict until we can see every detail, hear the snap of every bullet and squirm at the awkward pause in every conversation.

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FROM THE CITY, FROM THE PLOUGH … Between the covers

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T redhis 1948 best seller echoes Alexander Baron’s own military career as it follows a battalion of a fictional infantry brigade as they prepare for – and then take part in – D Day in the summer of 1944. The Fifth Wessex is, as the book’s title suggests, made up of a mixture of clumsy red-cheeked farm boys from the chalk uplands, well-read introverts who keep themselves to themselves, streetwise chancers and bewildered lads who are virgins in both bedroom and battlefield. They could be soldiers from earlier wars, and their ancestors might have known Agincourt, Marston Moor, Malplaquet, Talavera, Spion Kop and Arras. Baron has no time for the thinly veiled homo-eroticism of some of the Great War writers. His men can be uncouth, foul-mouthed, brutalised by their social background, yet given to moments of great compassion and charity.

City Plough coverThe British officer class have been long the object of scorn in both poetry and prose, but Baron deals with them in a largely sympathetic way. Those leading the Fifth on the ground are decent fellows; people who are only too aware of the frequently uneven struggle between shards of steel and the breasts of brave men. Even the Brigadier, whose plans prove so costly, is well aware of what he asks. He is, however, resolute in the way he shuts down his personal qualms in order to maintain the integrity of the battle plan. The one exception is the odious Major Maddison, a cold and sexually troubled narcissist whose demise is as satisfying as it is inevitable.

It is worth comparing From The City, From The Plough to another deeply moving novel of men at war, Covenant With Death, (1961) by John Harris. Both deal at length with preparation for an assault; both conclude with the devastating outcome. In Harris’s book the ‘band of brothers’ is a thinly fictionalised Pals Battalion from a northern city. Their Gehenna is the morning of July 1st 1916 and if it is just as brutal as the fate of the Fifth Wessex, it is perhaps more shocking for its suddenness. Harris concludes his book with the words;

Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our story.”

B redaron writes lyrically about the midsummer grace of the French countryside, its orchards and abundance of wild flowers, some of which grace the helmets and tunics of the passing soldiers, their fragility which will contrast cruelly with the total vulnerability of the crumpled and shattered bodies of the men who wore them. For the driven and exhausted men of the Fifth Wessex, unlike their fathers before them, there is always a new unspoiled hillside, a grove of trees untouched by shellfire, a fresh sunken lane lined with roses and willow herb. For the war in Normandy is a war of movement. A field reeking with the blood of dead horses and cattle is soon left behind, as the Brigadier stabs his finger at the map and finds another bridge, another crossroads and another copse that must be taken.

baronThe heroes in From The City, From The Plough come in all shapes and sizes, but there are no winners. Let Alexander Baron (right) have the last word.

“Among the rubble, beneath the smoking ruins, the dead of the Fifth Battalion sprawled around the guns they had silenced; dusty, crumpled and utterly without dignity; a pair of boots protruding from a roadside ditch; a body blackened and bent like a chicken burnt in the stove; a face pressed into the dirt; a hand reaching up out of a mass of brick and timbers; a rump thrust ludicrously towards the sky. The living lay among them, speechless, exhausted, beyond grief or triumph, drawing at broken cigarettes and watching with sunken eyes the tanks go by.”

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THE WARTIME POSTMAN DELIVERS . . .

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In September 2019, to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, IWM will launch a wonderful new series with four novels from their archives all set during the Second World War – Imperial War Museums Wartime Classics.

Originally published to considerable acclaim, these titles were written either during or just after the Second World War and are currently out of print. Each novel is written directly from the author’s own experience and takes the reader right into the heart of the conflict. They all capture the awful absurdity of war and the trauma and chaos of battle as well as some of the fierce loyalties and black humour that can emerge in extraordinary circumstances. Living through a time of great upheaval, as we are today, each wartime story brings the reality of war alive in a vivid and profoundly moving way and is a timely reminder of what the previous generations experienced.

Alan Jeffreys, (Senior Curator, Second World War, Imperial War Museums) searched the IWM library collection to come up with these four launch titles, all of which deserve a new and wider audience.   He has written an introduction to each novel that sets them in context and gives the wider historical background and says:

Researching the Wartime Classics has been one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve worked on in my years at IWM. It’s been very exciting rediscovering these fantastic novels and helping to bring them to the wider readership they so deserve”.

Each story reflects the IWM remit to tell the stories of those who experienced conflict first hand. Each author has a fascinating back story. These are Second World War novels about the truth of war written by those who were actually there.

FROM THE CITY, FROM THE PLOUGH by Alexander Baron

baronThis is a vivid and moving account of preparations for D- Day and the advance into Normandy. Published in the 75th anniversary year of the D-Day landings, this is based on the author’s first-hand experience of D-Day and has been described by Antony Beevor  as:

“u
ndoubtedly one of the very greatest British novels of the Second World War.”

Alexander Baron was a widely acclaimed author and screenwriter and his London novels have a wide following. This was his first novel.

TRIAL BY BATTLE by David Piper

PiperThis quietly shattering and searingly authentic depiction of the claustrophobia of jungle warfare in Malaya was described by William Boyd as:

A tremendous rediscovery of a brilliant novel. Extremely well-written, its effects are both sophisticated and visceral.”

VS Naipaul described the novel as:

“one of the most absorbing and painful books about jungle warfare that I have read”

David Piper was best known as director of the National Portrait Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The novel is based on his time serving with the Indian Army in Malaya where he was captured by the Japanese and spent three years as a POW. His son, Tom Piper, was the designer of the hugely successful Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London to commemorate the First World War Centenary.

EIGHT HOURS FROM ENGLAND by Anthony Quayle

Anthony-Quayle-848x1024-848x1024Anthony Quayle was a renowned Shakespearean actor, director and film star and this is his candid account of SOE operations in occupied Europe. Historian and journalist Andrew Roberts said:

As well as being one of our greatest actors, Anthony Quayle was an intrepid war hero and his autobiographical novel is one of the greatest adventure stories of the Second World War. Beautifully written and full of pathos and authenticity, it brings alive the terrible moral decisions that have to be taken by soldiers under unimaginable pressures in wartime.”

PLENTY UNDER THE COUNTER by Kathleen Hewitt

Kathleen Hewitt WC_01_AThis murder mystery about opportunism and the black market is set against the backdrop of London during the Blitz.

‘With a dead body on the first page and a debonair RAF pilot as the sleuth, this stylish whodunit takes you straight back to Blitzed London and murder most foul. Several plausible suspects, a femme fatale, witty dialogue, memorable scenes and unexpected twists – it boasts everything a great whodunit should have, and more.

Kathleen Hewitt was a British author and playwright who wrote more than 20 novels in her lifetime. She was part of an artistic set in 1930’s London which included Olga Lehman and the poet Roy Campbell.


A full review of each novel will appear on the Fully Booked site in September.

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