Word on the Wire

Category: World War II


I had a slow start to 2020 for all the right reasons. I’d sent the first draft (mentioned in my last post) to my agent, which was nothing short of a miracle. Editorial work was steady and of exceptional quality, but I wasn’t rushed off my feet. A rarity, I had time to stand and stare, except I didn’t. When not walking, visiting and generally catching up on all things domestic, I read several novels, two of which stand out like shooting stars on a dark night: ‘London Rules’, by Mick Herron and the utterly sublime, ‘A Treachery of Spies’ by Manda Scott.

Already a committed fan of the ‘Slough House’ crew, I had moments during London Rules’ when I laughed out loud, but don’t be fooled by the hilarity and elegant writing. With terrorism and assassination attempts, there is plenty here that feels serious, contemporary and chilling. Plotting, as ever, is meticulous. Herron is a dab hand at persuading you to look one way when you should be staring at what’s right in front of you. Fast-paced, it’s the kind of story that you can polish off in an uninterrupted day.

‘A Treachery of Spies’ is a different beast. The story begins with a very old woman found dead in a car in France. The gruesome and puzzling circumstances of her death leads Ines Picaut, a lead detective, on a trail that travels back to the Second World War. The dual narrative is one of the brilliant aspects of the story as it switches from present day France to the activities of the British and the Maquis during the French resistance. To say I was gripped was an understatement. The story resonated more strongly as I’d read Damien Lewis’s ‘The Nazi Hunters’ last year.

As the title suggests, betrayal and the difficulties of who to trust in a situation, in which one false move can mean a swift death sentence, (if you’re lucky) powers the narrative. Consequently, Scott’s cast of characters are intriguing and complex, and tension is on a knife-edge throughout. At times, I wanted my imagination to shut down such is the brutality displayed towards those caught by the Nazis, as well as those French deemed to be collaborators by their countrymen. It’s a massive tribute to Scott’s writing that she tells it how it was, without gratuitousness or sensationalism. While the story may be fictional, the courage and commitment of those who fought against occupation and a cruel invader are never in doubt. But this is not a tale of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Human frailty on all sides is laid bare in unflinching detail. If espionage is your thing, go and buy.



This blog post should really be called ‘Vive la France’ because there’s a whole French thing going on, starting with the French cop drama ‘Spiral,’ which returned to our screens with a seventh season this month. It seemed grittier and more gripping (not easy to say) than ever. If you haven’t already caught it, I urge you to do so. The characters leap off the screen and the plot lines are always varied, twisty and compelling.

As mentioned last time, ‘The Nazi Hunters’ by Damien Lewis was next on my reading list. As the title suggests the story is about a secret SAS unit and the quest to track down Hitler’s war criminals, many of which had flouted the Geneva Convention and executed captured SAS soldiers. But this is not simply a tale of ‘derring-do’. The extraordinary courage and heroism shown by the French who did so much to protect the British during the invasion and occupation of their country is astonishing – and for which they paid an extraordinarily heavy price. Of some 1,000 villagers in Moussey and its surrounding valley, who were seized and shipped off to concentration camps, 661 would never return. It’s a sobering tale but it’s also one that leaves you with the conviction that, whatever madness and cruelty is inflicted, good people will always triumph.

In my last blog post, I promised to give you a little more information about my brief (very brief) foray into TV. In November, I’m appearing in ‘Everything is Connected – George Eliot’s life,’ a new Arena documentary directed by artist Gillian Wearing on BBC 4. Transmission time has yet to be revealed so my lips are sealed, especially as I have absolutely no idea how much of my participation will actually translate to screen. More anon.

Other than this, I’ve been flat out writing, which is why this post is so brief. However, attending an art exhibition in a church some weeks ago, we glanced up and spotted the order of hymns. 007, huh? Surprising ‘The Saint’ didn’t put in an appearance!


Years ago, when my children were little, we moved to a small village in Devon.   It was a tight-knit community in which people looked out for their neighbours. This was how I discovered that a widow who lived there had been married to a man who’d once been imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II. It was said that he never really recovered from his time in captivity. No surprise really as, on trying to break free, he’d been recaptured, beaten and his Achilles tendons sliced through to prevent further escapes. This all travelled through my head recently when I read ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North.’

It’s an astounding book on many levels and richly deserved to take the Man Booker prize in 2014. The love story between main protagonist, Dorrigo Evans, a young doctor, and his uncle’s wife, and portrayed in the early part of the novel, is beautifully told. It’s this relationship that haunts Dorrigo when held prisoner in a POW camp populated by Australians on the infamous Burma Death Railway.

Flanagan devotes a major part of the story to Dorrigo’s fight to save the lives of his men whose suffering is mind-blowingly incomprehensible.   And the author doesn’t spare the reader. Truthfully told, Flanagan describes in graphic detail the ulcerated limbs, bodies racked by starvation and disease, men little more than walking skeletons with shit erupting from distended anuses and running down into the wet bamboo, mud and slime. His description of young men in their prime looking like old men robbed of their vitality is heart-breaking. And that’s before you get to the beatings, casual cruelty and sheer mindlessness of forcing very sick men to labour in viciously hostile conditions. Flanagan also reveals the tremendous pressure under which the Japanese commanders were under care of their Emperor’s great desire to have his railway built at any cost, and with total disregard for those forced to work in pursuit of a twisted dream. Less easy to explain, vivisection without anaesthesia on US soldiers, an account so carelessly told by a Japanese doctor that it makes me shudder to write this.

There is a passage in which Dorrigo oversees a funeral pyre of rotting corpses. He curses God in the ripest of terms. It’s startling and smacks you right between the eyes and yet, more arresting, is the stark observation that three hundred men will stand by and watch three soldiers beat another sick and injured prisoner and do absolutely nothing because their survival for another day or hour or moment depends on submission and silence. And this great insight is where Flanagan, for me, really scores. The novel is packed with wisdom and emotional intelligence. Flanagan’s understanding of the life cycle of human suffering is as perceptive as it’s truthful. It explains why rescued men will embrace life and family, love and work, obliterating memories of the years spent in captivity with apparent ease, only for them to return with a vengeance, like some malignant disease, to haunt them later.

Be in no doubt, this is not a documentary style account of war and what conflict does to the individual and a nation. It’s a story of love and loss, of human endeavour and frailty. Not all who endured such terrible deprivation end their lives consumed by the past, but for Dorrigo Evans, a deeply flawed man, the ‘state of grace’ achieved by some proves horribly elusive. It’s sobering stuff, a triumph of storytelling, and a must-read for its sheer humanity and for creating something enduring and valuable out of the horrors of war.