THE WRITER’S LIFE
My factual self is variously in Germany, France, and a garden in Kent, in the Second World War, and the 1970s and 80s. These are very strange places to find myself spread around. In different places and times, are people I looked up to when I was younger, for different reasons than I do now, and some no longer here. There are times and places I better understand, because of those people. The geography and history cross over many times in the factual book I’m writing, just like the dimensions of space and time in my science fiction. But this is actual, not surreal…
Until recently (until I started writing this book), Philip Howard Byam-Cook was a man known only to me as “Sir”, because that’s what my dad called his boss (his wife was addressed as ma’am), not as far as I know through any instruction to do so, but as a mark of respect from a humble man such as my dad, grateful of employment and a home. To this day, I address former school teachers similarly, and those in respected positions (a professor, for example, to me, is “Sir”, unless advised otherwise by that person). As someone who’s left-wing in many things, including wealth distribution, and as a science fiction writer, I can see that solutions to such issues are a long way off. For as long as there are employers and employees, I respect those who respect others and who have empathy with fellow humans.
Back in the 70s and 80s, when I saw Mr Byam-Cook, he was a friendly, posh chap. He was very tall, lived in a big house, and I had no agenda to question where all that had come from, because my parents had jobs and our family had a home. The house was in the middle of its own private woods, so I really couldn’t give a hoot, as we didn’t say in those days. I got splendidly lost in those woods as a child, and as a teenager, I smoked lashings and lashings of cigarettes. If I’d taken the trouble to stop being a confused teen and learn more, I might have appreciated what I had around me. All I needed to do was talk.
I can only dream (or write) of how life would have been if I’d had the internet back then, but I’d like to think it wouldn’t keep me locked up indoors, not exploring those woods.
Not far from where I live now, is where Mr Byam-Cook’s accountant had an office (as a solicitor, Philip was on the boards of a number of companies). I have the internet, and now I can find out what I didn’t back then about my parent’s boss. The tall, friendly, posh lawyer was a quiet hero.
This in an extract I found in Wars and Shadows: Memoirs of General Sir David Fraser (ISBN-10: 0141008598), a WWII memoir:
One of the last significant memoirs of the Second World War, seen through the eyes of a young Grenadier Guardsman. David Fraser has had two careers: as one of Britain’s most distinguished soldiers and then as one of our leading military biographers. His childhood passed in grand houses in London and Scotland, but he was the son of anything but conventional parents, who are sketched out in this book in all their bizarre and entertaining individuality. Fraser’s accounts of becoming a soldier, the life of his regiment, and his role as a young officer, are brilliantly written classics of their kind. After the War he rose through the hierarchy until he became GOC the British Army of the Rhine and Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff.
David Fraser writes:
War crimes, and war crimes trials, impinged a lot on our existence. A friend of mine in the Batallion was Philip Byam-Cook, who was on the edge of a highly successful career in the law and who was, therefore, much in demand in the world of war crimes investigations, on one side or another. One evening he appeared in our Battalion Headquarters Officers’ Mess. There were only two or three of us there and Philip approached me.
‘David, I’m looking after a very senior officer in the RAF. Do you think we could put him up? He’s over there as a witness in a war crimes trial.’
Of course we were delighted (the visit lasted more than a week), and the more delighted because he proved to be a particularly charming person, an Air Marshal, Ivelaw Chapman. Sir Ronald Ivelaw Chapman, as he became, had been shot down on a raid over Germany, had escaped, been recaptured, tortured in order to extract the names of those in the Resistance who had helped his escape, and was now our guest.
I had many long talks with him. I seldom remember a more impressive man. He told me, under my no doubt impertinent and immature probing, exactly what had happened to him – how he had a gravely injured shoulder from the crash, how the Gestapo interrogators had beaten him on this shoulder, on and on and on. How he admired some of the Resistance chain who had helped his escape – ‘wonderful people!’
I never met a person with less bitterness. He spoke of his tormentors at that time with something like pity.
‘I could see they didn’t like what they were doing. They were quite young – I was sorry for them. I knew their feelings would give them hell one day.’
Such encounters – few in life – show what grandeur the human spirit can attain. The former German commandant of his prisoner-of-war camp (a decent man, he said) was being arraigned and ‘I felt I had to do, say, something for the fellow if I could. That’s why I’m here.’
Philip Byam-Cook had found him as a witness for the defence. He became an Air Chief Marshall and Vice Chief of the Air Staff. He did me – an unimportant Grenadier officer – a lot of good.
My parents might have considered themselves less important than others, but just like that Grenadier officer, they were there, helping others, and their acts have influenced me. They were part of the supporting cast for Philip Howard Byam-Cook, the aspiring lawyer in the story above, and who became inspiring for others.
The internet allows me to research the little-known history of those people my parents worked for, so that I can record their history in this book. The democratisation of the internet means that writers like me can record the stories of those which weren’t recorded at the time, because the means and notability wasn’t around those people. In writing the stories of the other people, myself and others are building a greater record of all of humankind, linking everything up.
It turns out there’s a rather poetic link back, as this small digression into a further past ends, and I move back into the present past, that of my time with my parents. Before I left that small online humanitarian pocket of the Second World War, I found out a little more about Air Chief Marshal Sir Ronald Ivelaw-Chapman GCB, KBE, DFC, AFC (17 January 1899 – 28 April 1978), cited by Wikipedia as A senior commander in the Royal Air Force in the middle of the 20th century and the penultimate RAF commander-in-chief of the Indian Air Force.
Born in British Guiana to a successful merchant. He came to England with his parents in 1903 and attended Cheltenham College. He served at the end of the First World War, then in 1929 he helped in a successful evacuation of the British Legation in Kabul amidst a civil war. Forced to make an emergency landing, he was rescued by an Afghan royalist officer, and later awarded the Air Force Cross for his handling of the incident.
And this story from World War II:
On the night of the 6/7 May 1944 Ivelaw-Chapman was flying as second pilot of a No. 576 Squadron Avro Lancaster on a mission to bomb an ammunition dump at Aubigne in France. His aircraft was shot down by a night fighter and Ivelaw-Chapman went on the run. Because of his experience and knowledge Churchill ordered the French resistance to do all they could to help him return to England, he was to be killed if he was in danger of being captured by the Germans. He was captured by the Gestapo on 8 June 1944, the most senior Bomber Command officer to have been captured by the Germans. Churchill’s fear was unfounded as the Germans did not realise his importance and he was treated as an ordinary prisoner of war.
After the war he was promoted to air vice marshal, then air chief marshal in 1950, and took command of the newly-formed Indian Air Force. On his return to the UK he became Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief at Home Command in March 1952, Deputy Chief of the Air Staff in November 1952, and Vice-Chief of the Air Staff in 1953, before he retired in 1957.
I found memorabilia online, signed by Sir Ronald and acquired from the old West Malling air field. Although the village is home to over twenty blue plaques, for whatever reason, Sir Ronald doesn’t have one. It’s nevertheless another nice link with the past to discover, and one I wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for my parents, but which I’m now able to bring to more light in all the rich history surrounding them.
In amongst all of his adventures – between the wars in 1930 – Ronald married his fiancée, Margaret…
There’s some sort of magic at work as it all links up. From here, the book goes back to Ightham, and life with my parents’ respective sisters, both called Margaret.
Between chapters, I’ve got some more sci-fi and horror to write. My virtual self, split over multiple times and places, taking the time to find things out. And I only write them down just in case, they should die.
I hope people are similarly haunted by me when I go.
Silent Gardens will be published around March next year. My other books are available from Amazon and can be ordered from any book shop, or requested at libraries.