Accuracy or Invention of Character

This post concerns these two approaches when it comes to fiction. (I like to think that writers of non-fiction don’t resort to invention.) It is also restricted to my own view on this subject without prejudice to what any other writer might do.

I have written six novels, two of which I have not attempted to publish. In one case the reason was that the book might have been deemed defamatory, though had this happened my defence would have been accuracy. Despite the fact that the subject is now dead, I would follow the same principle. I don’t consider it acceptable to defame someone, even if they are dead, for the purposes of fiction. There are no doubt many examples of this, but one which comes to mind (my mind, at least) is Antonio Salieri. This poor man has been traduced several times, for example, by Alexander Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov (after Pushkin) and most egregiously in the play Amadeus by Peter Schaffer, later made into a film. 

There was undoubtedly some rivalry between Salieri and Mozart, but there is also evidence of Salieri’s support for Mozart on several occasions, and also much evidence of Salieri’s kindness to others. When it came to teaching his speciality was singing – not an area Mozart ever entered – and it is known that he gave tuition free of charge except to the wealthy. Then there was his reaction to the death of his student, Marianna von Auenbrugger, at the age of 23. Marianna composed as well as played and when she died Salieri, at his own expense, published her Sonata in E-flat as a memorial to her. He was obviously deeply affected by the death of this talented young woman. 

Making things up is clearly a contentious subject and very much with us today. When the film Titanic aired, relatives of the first officer, William McMaster Murdoch, took exception to the portrayal of this gentleman, apparently with some reason.

But in case this has been forgotten, there are more recent examples. Over the past few years, a series called The Crown has been aired on Netflix. Unless the writers were flies on private walls, grouse moors and many other places on numerous occasions, the dialogue between members of the monarchy and those associated with them is invented. Okay, so the exact words were made up, but perhaps they bear accurate witness to the thoughts and feelings of those involved? For the most part, there is  no way of knowing. And some of these people are still with us today, notably Charles and Camilla who, I read, will shortly hit our screens in the forthcoming series of The Crown. The fact that some of us don’t consider this a good idea does not make it illegal: if it were, injunctions would surely be flying. For my part, it amazes me that writers can legally put words into the mouths of living people like this.

And what do we make of the series, Blonde, based on the  biography of Marilyn Monroe by Joyce Carol Oates? I could, of course, follow the fashion of the times and insert an image of Marilyn at this point but prefer not to do so. What would it add? Most people already know what she looked like. 

To me this subject raises a number of question. For example, when we die, does our reputation die with us or is everyone free to trash it? Or how about this: can novelists and screen writers just make us up?

 

Everyone Loves a Bear

There will be exceptions, no doubt, but ever since Theodore Roosevelt lent his name to the Teddy Bear they have been popular. Disney helped too, many decades ago, with footage of bear cubs falling out of trees for the amusement of the cinema-going public.

The bear below was owned by a notable soldier, Kermit, son of Theodore, and now lives on a restricted diet at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. He looks a bit morose to me, as Kermit himself sometimes did. (He committed suicide in Alaska.)

And bears have been popular ever since, most notably with excellent peedie folk like this.

However, the bear I have in mind here, the real subject, was Wojtek, who led a remarkable life. During World War II, he accompanied Polish soldiers to several theatres of war and ferried munitions during the Battle of Monte Casino without, we are told, ever dropping any.

When the Polish soldiers who had adopted him sailed from Egypt to fight with the British 8th Army in the Italian campaign they had to cut through the inevitable red tape to get him aboard a transport ship. To solve this problem he was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private and was listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. He was later promoted to corporal.

When the war ended, Wojtek the bear was stationed with his unit in the village of Hutton, near Duns, As you would expect, he was very popular, and in November 1947 he was entrusted to Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his days and was often visited by former Polish soldiers. As a serving soldier he had ‘enjoyed’ the occasional cigarette. But now they had to be thrown to him over the fence. It seems they were still gratefully received, but because there was no one in his enclosure to light them for him he ate them instead. Wojtek died in December 1963, at the age of 22.

On September 16, 2013 the City of Edinburgh Council approved a bronze statue of Wojtek to stand in Princes Street Gardens. The statue represents Wojtek and a Polish Army Soldier walking in peace and unity.

A four metre long relief represents his journey from Egypt to Scotland with the Polish Army.

And here he is with one of his army friends.

So thanks to Wojtek the Bear we now have an image of a Polish soldier in the centre of the City of Edinburgh. This is just as well because, sad to say, when a victory parade took place in London after the war Polish forces were shamefully excluded following pressure from these nice people in the Soviet Union.

Changing Times

In our area, there was a manor house, a manse, a farmhouse and a farm toun, the last being a collection of buildings used in the running of a farm – barns and the like. The picture below shows part of the original farm toun, now demolished, attached to the farm.

085 (R53 fr19) workshops

Until recently, we lived in the farmhouse. The farm toun had already given way to housing, but when we looked out of our kitchen window, that at least was still there, our local hotel which, in days gone by, had been the manse, the home of a minister of the Church of Scotland. And a cold and draughty home it doubtless was.

Northfield 2

We know exactly when the building was completed.

Northfield 3

When we moved to the farmhouse in 1980, any minister who had once occupied the manse was long gone (I will not speculate where), and the building was occupied by an actuary and his family. When they decided to sell, a businessman bought it with the intention of turning it into a hotel. This he did, and a succession of people have run it as a hotel since then.

The prevoius owners added a conservatory, which greatly increased the number of people the kitchen could cater for. They also held quiz nights there which, according to the lady in charge, were ‘famous’.

Northfield 5

The present owners expanded further with an outdoor area, also visible in this picture. It seems there may have been occasional instances of anti-social behaviour, hence this sign, which will disappear with everything else when the hotel is demolished to make way for student accommodation. Because this, we learn to our dismay, is the plan.

Northfield 6

We have had many meals in the hotel over the years, and held the reception there after my mother’s funeral. But even before the virus struck, the restaurant had ceased trading for the general public and catered for hotel guests only.

Sadly, with the coming of the virus, bookings were cancelled even before the lockdown got going so, for the time being, the hotel has not been a viable business. Now the present owners, having gone over the figures, have concluded that this sad state of affairs is likely to continue.

As for demolishing it and replacing it with student accommodation, it is not clear that this will be viable either. In recent years there has been an outbreak of developments for the student market in Edinburgh, many offering a complete range of services including that modern must-have, free Wi-Fi and, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn, full body massage with essential oils. Ylang ylang, anyone?

So it seems to me that this market is already saturated, and given the fact that universities will not be returning to ‘normal’ any time soon, there is likely to be an oversupply.

And it gets worse. Students can join online lectures from anywhere, from Wuhan to Albuquerque, without shelling out over £600 per month for the privilege. Since it will cost a fortune to demolish the hotel and construct the proposed student accommodation, I cannot see the delevopers getting a return on their investment. But that is their problem, right?

Times change, not always for the better. We have to put up with it but we don’t have to like it.

Surviving The Death Railway -Review

This book documents two things: what happens to the  men of 27 Line Section when they are captured by the Japanese during WWII, and the efforts of Barry Custance Baker and his wife Phyllis, not only to keep in touch with each other but the valiant efforts of Phyllis to keep the families of other prisoners of war as well informed as possible regarding the fate of the men.

deathrailwayT

Phyllis was in regular contact by letter with relatives of the captured men who, for a long time, had no idea whether or not they were still alive, where they were, or what condition they were in. Over a period of time she compiled what someone at the War Office referred to as a ‘fearsome dossier’. She could not have worked harder at this. Many letters from relatives are quoted, and without exception the relatives, mostly women, do their level best to express themselves and their feelings even when they know their letter-writing skills could be better.

The enforced slave labour of the POWs has been well documented, and is so again here. Barry proved to be an enormously resourceful man who did his utmost to help his men in the appalling conditions they found themselves. Many died, and at one point he was given the job of making crosses to mark their graves. There was also the ever-present danger of disease and the measures the POWs were forced to take to combat it.

‘There were, of course, no antibiotics regularly available though small quantities of one of the sulpha drugs did appear occasionally. The doctors decided that when an ulcer patient had a life expectation of not more than a fortnight then the limb, almost always a leg, would be amputated. Markowitz got to work immediately to sort out the backlog. It is recorded that he took off over a hundred legs in his first month.’

On the subject of these nice Japanese:

‘To discourage looting from the windowless shops anyone caught by the Japanese Special Police, the Kempi Tai [Kempeitai], was immediately beheaded. The heads were then displayed on small bamboo stands at street corners in the city, each head being guarded by a Japanese sentry with a fixed bayonet. Each stand also had a small notice in English and in Chinese characters describing the man’s crime. The Japanese policy, as we later learned, was to be generally very anti European and pro Asiatic, this being part of the ‘Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere’.’

And yet, what struck me most about this account was the amazing efforts of Phyllis to keep her marriage alive through writing, which provides a strong narrative thread running through the book. She adopted the technique of numbering her letters so that Barry could tell at once if one or more had failed to arrive. But sometimes her problem was what to include, how forthright to be. She could be very forthright indeed.

‘Now I’ll say goodnight and try to dream I am sharing that small bungalow and big bed with you. All day I want my husband and Robin’s Daddy home again, but now I want a lover back, and those times when you read bits of Bilitis, or Song of Songs to me before we once again translated their subtle, delicate, sensuous imaginings to glorious reality. My body lacks the vigorous, healthful stimulus of your presence, beloved, almost as much as my mind the perfect peace & relaxation of our fulfilled love. I can keep myself busy during the day, but at night I ache for you, body and soul. Remember, won’t you, your love means my whole life, darling.’

When reading a passage like this I feel uneasy, an intruder. Phyllis herself was aware of this possibility; on one occasion she writes:

‘My own dear darling, If when you get this you are with a crowd of people, please put it away to be read for another time. For I feel so full of love & longing for you, that I may be very indiscreet.’

It is known that Phyllis kept a diary but the editor of this volume, her daughter Hilary, was unable to find it and wonders whether she destroyed it because of the intimate passages it contained. We shall never know.

One factor here had to be the mental effect on Barry of the privation he suffered for several years as a POW, magnified by the responsibility he felt for those under his command and for whom he could do much less than he would have liked. Towards the end, after he has been freed but before his return, he writes:

‘I am very sick of my fellow men, and I’ve a terrible distaste for orders or authority in any form and even stronger distaste for any personal responsibility. This will disappear quite soon I hope. Whether I stay in the army or not must depend on a later decision. When I am mentally fitter than I now am to make it. Just now an army career fills me with horror.’

Hilary Custance Green has done an amazing job bringing order to the disparate materials at her disposal and bringing them into a coherent narrative. I read that it took her six years to complete this work and I can well believe it. But her efforts have paid off in an excellent book which, among other things, is a fitting tribute to her amazing parents.

hilary-custance-green

 

 

Learning by accident

When we arrived we went to our hotel, a well-designed modern building; every room has a picture window view over the river.

Victoria Hotel 3

This photograph of the parliament building was taken through the window of our bedroom.

Parliament from bedroom

To one side of Reception was a bar, to the other a dining room.

Victoria Hotel 2

But behind Reception, to the rear of the building, was something else entirely, an area normally kept locked. Through the doorway we could see beautifully carved woodwork and a flight of stairs.  ‘What is this?’ we asked the receptionist. This, he told us, was a reconstruction of rooms where a famous composer had lived before the Nazis invaded. The house had been destroyed during the defence of Budapest against the Soviets when Germans and Hungarians had tried to hold off Russians and Romanians.

And who was the famous composer? He was Jenő Hubay, which disconcerted me a lot because I hadn’t heard of him. A little research found that he was a fine violin player who had studied with Joseph Joachim, played chamber music with Brahms and had a string of famous pupils himself, including Carl Nielsen’s son-in-law, Emil Telmanyi, for whom Nielsen wrote his violin concerto.

B_hubay_jeno_0

The owners of the hotel have carefully reconstructed some of Hubay’s house, where he used to hold recitals until his death in 1937. They were so popular that his wife started them up again two years later.

Hubay rooms 2Hubay rooms 1

Hubay has a considerable number of compositions to his credit. These include operas and also, as you would expect, compositions for the violin including four concertos. It sometimes happens that when a virtuoso writes concertos for his or her instrument they are strong on technical demands but weak in musical interest. This is not always the case, though, and certainly isn’t with Jenő Hubay. His concertos are excellent and well scored. Here is Ragin playing a movemnt of the third concerto.

And there are a few recordings featuring Hubay himself.

Two more little wrinkles. Hubay married a countess, Róza Cebrian.

Hubay and Cebrian

And then there is the Chaplin connection. Chaplin’s daughter, Antoinette, studied violin with Jenő Hubay in Budapest in the 1920’s and often mentioned Hubay and members of his family in letters home. That said, she did not stand comparison with most of Hubay’s other students.

But I have just begun to explore all this and haven’t even mentioned General Bem, about whom a book could be written and probably has been.

Love and Survival in the Gulag

Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag

This book, by Orlando Figes, tells the story of two people, Lev and Svetlana, forcibly kept apart because Lev is serving ten years in the Soviet Gulag.

How did this come about? He was captured by the Germans, escaped to the Americans, then chose to return to Russia. At which point he was charged with being a spy and sent to a labour camp. The fact that he could speak German didn’t help, but it didn’t make him a spy either.

Once separated, they communicated by letter. Most of the letters have survived – over 1,240 of them. As is well known, letters were censored, so in some cases reading between the lines was necessary. But since it proved relatively easy to smuggle letters in and out of the camp, they soon became more candid.

Although this huge cache of letters needed to be translated for this book, Lev and Svetlana helped the author in his task by numbering them. This was not with an eye on posterity, but a method of alerting each other to the fact that a letter had gone missing, or that letters had arrived but in the wrong order. This betrays a methodical approach befitting two people both of whom were scientists.

The letters left an unexpected impression on this reader. The fact that the regime was run on inhumane and paranoid lines did not come as a surprise, but both Lev and Svetlana were in some ways supportive of it despite having inside knowledge of some of its worst horrors and stupidities. This attitude is hard to explain, but since it didn’t trouble the authors they make no attempt to account for it.

One aspect of the Gulag system which did not occur to me was why it was bound to fail. In the years immediately after the war, show trials resulted in a good supply of prisoners to the Gulag. But as the trials reduced in number at the input end and prisoners were released when they finished their sentences, the population of slave labourers started to fall off dramatically.

So what are we to make of our lovers? This can be well illustrated by an observation Figes makes about Svetlana.

She was a practical person, emotionally generous, often warm in her affections, but far too honest and plain-speaking to succumb to romantic illusions.

Or as she puts it herself:

Sentimental words about love (both lofty and cheap) produce the same effect on me as commerce. Mine to you, just as yours to me. From them stem never-ending grievances. P70

If I had to summarise this book in a word, that word would be ‘worthy’. It is worthy because Lev and Svetlana were worthy. Good people who were put in a horrendous situation by a corrupt system and wrote to each other over a period of ten years about their feelings and their lives.

I am reminded of other books dealing with life in repressive regimes, such as Wild Swans.The people who rise to positions of power in these regimes like to bend everyone to their will, for example, by killing them in their millions. And in extreme cases they may try to bend things to their will as will.

Wild Swans, Chang's first international bestseller

Wild Swans, Chang’s first international bestseller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mao declared war on grass and flowers – which should be hard to believe but is not.

Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada

I have recently read two novels set during the Third Reich: The Death of the Adversary, by Hans Keilson (1959) and Alone in Berlin (1947). I have already posted a review of The Death of the Adversary (under Book Reviews) and am following it now with a review of Alone in Berlin which, in my opinion, is very much better.

Hans Fallada is not the author’s real name. He came up with a nom de plume on the advice of his father, who knew only too well that his son had been jailed for killing a friend in a duel and, on two occasions after that, for embezzlement. What a deplorable person, I hear you say – especially compared to Hans Keilson, a notable psychoanalyst who lived to the ripe old age of 101 after a lifetime of good works.

English: 100th day of birth of Hans Fallada (1...

English: 100th day of birth of Hans Fallada (1893—1947) Deutsch: 100. Geburtstag von Hans Fallada (1893—1947) :*Graphics by Nitzsche :*Ausgabepreis: 100 Pfennig :*First Day of Issue / Erstausgabetag: 15. Juli 1993 :*Michel-Katalog-Nr: 1683 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of Fallada we can safely say that there was little concerning human weakness with which he was not well acquainted, including reliance on what we would now call substance abuse for most of his adult life. Now people with human weaknesses are all around us, and no doubt inside us as well, but life under a repressive regime like the Third Reich will expose weaknesses rather more than would be the case in the relatively comfortable societies we now inhabit in the west.  Alone in Berlin has many weak characters and a wide range of weaknesses on display.  Fallada’s life experiences equipped him singularly well to give us these people, but Fallada could also write.  He brings them to life. And there are strengths too.

The story is based on a real case, and if you buy the Penguin edition you will find considerable documentation about it as an appendix. A couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, fought a campaign against the Reich by writing postcards and leaving them to be found. The postcards called for civil disobedience and sabotage in the workplace, and the Hampels managed to keep it going for nearly three years before they were caught.

In the novel, the Hampels become Otto and Anna Quangel, and it is amazing how the apparently simple act of leaving critical postcards on stairways and window ledges can cause dilemmas for all concerned, including the police and the Gestapo. Neither  the Hampels in real life nor the Quangels in the book are highly educated, but they have considerable moral force and the determination to fight for what they believe to be right. Their philosophy, which seems to have been shared by the author, is found in several places.

‘Anna Quangel felt herself trembling. Then she looked over at Otto again. He might be right: whether their act was big or small. No one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back.’ (Page 140)

On one level they are kidding themselves in thinking that their postcards were having an effect: most of them when found were handed straight over to the police. Fallada explains their state of mind.

‘Neither Quangel doubted for one moment that their cards were being passed from hand to hand in factories and offices, that Berlin was beginning to hum with talk about these oppositional spirits. They conceded that some of their cards probably wound up in the hands of the police, but they reckoned no more than one out of every five or six. They had so often thought and spoken about the great effectiveness of their work that the circulation of their cards and the attention that greeted them was, as far as they were concerned, no longer theoretical but factual.

And yet the Quangels didn’t have the least actual evidence for this. Whether it was Anna Quangel standing in a food-queue, or the foreman with his sharp eyes taking up position among a group of chatterers – bringing their prattle to an end merely by standing there – not once did they hear a word about the new struggler against the Führer and the missives this unknown sent out into the world. But the silence that greeted their work could not shake them in their faith that it was being discussed and having an effect. Berlin was a very large city, and the scattering of the postcards took place over a very wide area, so it was clear that it would take time for knowledge of their activities to permeate everywhere. In other words, the Quangels were like most people: they believed what they hoped.’ (Page167)

On the other hand, the Gestapo officer charged with tracking down the culprits, Inspector Escherich, is under so much pressure to get a result that he puts someone in the frame whom he knows well is not involved. The man in question is Enno Kluge, and this part of the narrative comes to a head in Chapter 32. The following quotation does not reveal the upshot of this scene between the two men, but it does paint a graphic picture of the treatment suspects could expect. Violence is the stock in trade of the Gestapo and the SS. He goes into detail concerning the interrogation techniques of the latter.

‘It’s you they want now, Kluge, the gentlemen of the SS, and they’re keen to question you in their own inimitable fashion. They believe the statement, and they believe you’re the author, or at the very least, the distributor of the cards. And they’ll wring that from you, they’ll wring everything they want from you with their techniques, they’ll squeeze you like an orange, and then they’ll beat your brains out, or they’ll put you on trial before the People’s Court, which comes to pretty much the same thing, only your agonies will be more drawn out.’

The inspector paused, and the wholly terrified Kluge pressed himself trembling against him – the man he had just called a murderer – as though seeking help from him.

`But you know it wasn’t me!’ he stammered. ‘God’s own truth! You can’t deliver me to them, I can’t stand it, I’ll scream . . .’

`Of course you’ll scream,’ affirmed the inspector equably. ‘Of course you will. But that won’t bother them, they’ll enjoy it. You know what, Kluge, they’ll sit you down on a stool and they’ll hang a strong light in your face, and you’ll keep staring into the light, and the heat and the brightness will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced. And at the same time they will ask you questions, one man will take over from another, but no one will take over from you, however exhausted you get. Then when you fall over from exhaustion, they’ll rouse you with kicks and blows, and they’ll give you salt water to drink, and when none of that does any good, they will dislocate every bone in your hand one by one. They will pour acid on the soles of your feet . . .’

`Please stop, sir, oh, please stop, I can’t hear any more . . .’

`Not only will you hear it, you will have to suffer it, Kluge, for a day, for two, three, five days – and all the time, day and night they will give you nothing to eat, your belly will shrivel up to the size of a string bean, and you will think you can die from sheer pain. But you won’t die; once they have someone in their hands, they don’t let them go that easily. No, they will . . .’

`No, no, no,’ screamed little Enno, holding his hands over his ears. ‘I don’t want to hear any more. Not one more word. I’d rather be dead!’

`Yes, I think you’re right there,’ confirmed the inspector, ‘you’d be better off.’  (Pages 296/297)

Partly because they are that way inclined, but also because they do not want to put anyone else in danger, the Quangels become increasingly self-reliant, without realising the nature of the state they are opposing, one in which everyone is expected to toe the party line.

‘So, increasingly, they took refuge in their happiness as husband and wife. They were like a pair of lovers clasped together in a flood, with waves and currents, collapsing houses and the bloated corpses of cattle all around them, still believing they would escape the general devastation if they only stuck together. They had failed to understand that there was no such thing as private life in wartime Germany. No amount of reticence could change the fact that every individual German belonged to the generality of Germans and must share in the general destiny of Germany, even as more and more bombs were falling on the just and unjust alike.’ (Page 306)

In due course the ‘law’ catches up with them, and Fallada takes us through the process of interrogation, imprisonment and trial in great detail.

There are quite a few characters in this book, and they are all brought out very well: the venal Emil Borkhausen, the excellent retired judge, Herr Fromm, the strutting party member Baldur Persicke, the post-woman Eva Kluge, and young Trudel Baumann, to name just a few. Fallada brings out their states of mind remarkably well as their situations change – usually, but not always for the worse. And the narrative notwithstanding, this is really what the book is about. In my opinion, it is a major achievement and one of the best novels I have read.

The True Date of Christmas

There seems to some doubt as to when Jesus was born since there is not a shred of documentary evidence to guide us. There are other indicators, however.

According to my Christmas Cactus, the birth probably occurred some weeks earlier than we are usually led to believe. It’s quite insistent on this point, coming into full  flower some three weeks ahead of the official date every year.

christmas cactus with flash

For the purposes of this post, I have set the knowledgeable plant on a plinth of sorts for maximum effect.

Poland and the Second World War

This is the third of four reports from the Edinburgh Book Festival.

This event was chaired by Allan Little, the featured speaker being Halik Kochanski, who has recently published a book documenting what happened to Poland during World War II. Various books have appeared on this subject over the years but, according to the author, none of them have attempted to give us the whole picture. In her book ‘The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War’, the author has attempted to do this.

http://tinyurl.com/kdfyps2

I am not qualified to say how successful she has been: I have only read one book on this subject – Jan Karski’s “Story of a Secret State,” published during the war itself. However, to judge by the reviews it is likely she has done very well. This post is intended as a reaction to the event rather than the book, but I have included at the end a summary review from Publishers Weekly.

After a brief introduction from Alan Little, Kochanski gave a talk on her subject. It was immediately clear that – though some manage to be both – the lady is an academic rather than a performer. Sticking closely to her notes, she showed slight signs of nervousness and on occasion said ‘as you can see from the map.’ I don’t know about others, but I couldn’t.

Among the contentious subjects she dealt with was the treatment of Jews by Poles during the German occupation. Without denying anything which had taken place, she pointed out that the penalty for a Pole harbouring a Jew was more extreme than in any other country. Both would be shot. She also pointed out that Poland was the only occupied country with an organisation set up with the sole purpose of helping Jews.

As these events go, Kochanski’s talk was unusually short, coming in at under twenty minutes, so the rest of the time was taken up with questions and the occasional statement from the floor. For me, two things stood out. The first was the appearance of a conspiracy theory. A lady who identified herself as Polish complained rather bitterly that the UK government had withheld publication of relevant files for twenty years past the time when they should have been published. They still weren’t available. Kochanski didn’t deny this. However, another member of the audience also addressed this issue. She was a historian. The files in question were all publicly available and had been for some time. She would know, she’d consulted them all in connection with her research. Furthermore, a committee had been formed which had access to relevant MI6 files. Several members of this committee were Polish, and it was ‘unprecedented’ that foreign nationals had access to these files.

A second piece of information came as news to me, and no doubt it shouldn’t have. This concerned the shocking massacre of Polish officers by the Soviets at Katyn. When the bodies were discovered it was assumed that the massacre had been carried out by the Nazis – it would, after all, be entirely in character. But at some point it became clear that the massacre had in fact been carried out by the Soviets. Yet when the intelligence services in UK learned the truth, they sat on it, sticking to the line that the massacre had been carried out by the Germans. Unfortunately for them, the Soviets eventually admitted it, but several more years passed before the UK authorities confirmed that they had known this for some time.

Kochanski’s parents settled in UK and Polish was not spoken in the household, her parents believing that the family should integrate in their new society. I think this misconceived and very sad. Few things could be more useful than growing up speaking two languages, and I can think of no reason why this should be a barrier to integration.

Kochanski spoke to a full house, many of whom were Polish or had Polish connections. Her reception was friendly to say the least and I have little doubt her book will do well. From what I can see, it deserves to.

Extract From Publishers Weekly

Kochanski, a British military historian, integrates concise, clear, and persuasive campaign analyses with an account of the brutality suffered by Poles under German and Soviet occupation during WWII. She also examines the complex internal politics of Poland’s armed forces in exile, and Poland’s international position. She incorporates the creation and performance of the 1st Polish Army on the Eastern Front into a narrative that in most Western accounts is too often dominated by action in Italy and Northwest Europe. Her treatment of the Polish Resistance and the 1944 uprising is excellent. She also establishes the complex mix of operations, logistics, and politics behind the Allies’ limited support for the Home Army in Warsaw. Kochanski’s sympathies clearly lie with Poland’s exile government in London, but she neither conceals nor trivializes policies and decisions that often proved self-defeating. Kochanski also gives an account of the Holocaust and the thorny issue of Polish collaboration in it. Above all, this is a story of expedience: the critical decisions that had to be taken, the terrible role of sheer chance, …the simple desire to survive under the most difficult circumstances. And expedients, as Kochanski ably demonstrates, are not always wise.