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Remembering Helen McCrory

I only met the magnificent Helen McCrory once, for an hour and a half, in a tiny room above a shop in Tottenham Court Road. But that meeting left an indelible impression on me and I will never forget the magic of her presence. I had been hired as the historical consultant on the film Woman in Black 2 and after working on the script I was asked to meet Ms McCrory and Phoebe Fox. I arrived early for our meeting and was not quite sure what to expect. They arrived together and before Helen had taken off her coat and sat down opposite me the questions began. Who was I? What had I written? What were my credentials for advising them on life in London in the Second World War? She was not impressed with Jambusters but when I mentioned that I’d written Fearless on Everest she looked at me sharply and said: ‘Sandy Irvine? The one who climbed with George Mallory? Oh that is exciting. My husband is mad about the Mallory and Irvine story. I must get him a copy of your book.’ I don’t know if she ever did but I was fascinated to learn that Damian Lewis is interested in the Everest 1924 saga.

After that we settled down. Phoebe Fox was relaxed and chatty, Helen McCrory the consummate professional. She was not there to waste her or my time and her questions were searching and intelligent. We talked about her character, Jean Hogg, and how she would get inside her head and understand what she was thinking. The conversation moved from her personality to her physical presence. What would she be wearing? A suit or a dress with a cardigan, I suggested. ‘No, I mean what would she have been wearing underneath all that?’ A corset, I said. ‘A corset? Surely that is Victorian?’ I replied that in 1940 over a third of the female population wore corsets and someone the age of Jean Hogg probably would have been one of that third since it was mainly younger women who were happy to cast corsets aside for the new-fangled bra and pants. That really captured her interest. ‘So when were bras invented?’ Well, it’s a complicated story but suffice it to say that it was only in the mid-1930s that they were mass-produced for the European market. ‘Oh I like that,’ she said. ‘So what sort of corset would Jean Hogg have worn?’ The question almost caught me off guard but then I remembered talking to my friend Marion Platt whose grandmother was a corset wearer. Marion had described watching the old lady (probably in her fifties) taking off her stays at night, rolling them up and putting them carefully on her bedroom chair. So I told Helen the story and described the simple stays that Marion’s grannie had worn.

Helen McCrory and Phoebe Fox in Woman in Black 2

‘How would that have made her look? I mean, how would it have affected her posture?’ She sat up on her chair, straightened her back and asked ‘Like this?’ ‘Not quite so stiff,’ I replied. She moved her body around, feeling for the right sort of pose. It was stunning to watch. She had perfect control over her poise and as she moved her body around, making minute changes to her posture she morphed from beautiful, natural Helen McCrory into middle-aged, spinsterish Jean Hogg. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, nor could Phoebe Fox. It was mesmerising. And then it was all over. She relaxed, smiled oh so warmly and thanked me for helping her to get inside the head and body of her character.

When she stood up to go I realised how petite she was, yet her presence was enormous. I have met other actors since, but none has made my heart beat as fast as Helen McCrory. I have watched her on television many times and I always feel a tiny sense of pride that I once met this great, wonderful, clever, beautiful professional woman whose brilliance has touched so many and whose life has been extinguished way too early.

Men on the Move: The Royal British Legion at 100

I mentioned in a previous blog that one of the things that struck me about the Royal British Legion was the age of its membership around the time of its formation. Rather like the Women’s Institute when it was set up in 1915 with its members average age of 24 years old, the Legion’s profile was young. Many of the men who had returned injured during and after the First World War were in their twenties. Some had missed out on education and apprenticeships as a result of conscription. What these men wanted more than handouts or sympathetic support was a job. The Legion was active in helping tens of thousands of men to find work after the war but there was a cohort of disabled men for whom it was much more difficult to find employment. Sometimes their disabilities meant they were physically unable to undertaken manual work. A man who had suffered a spinal injury or who had lost a limb would not be able to work in a factory or in agriculture, but he needed a job.

The Legion knew that nothing was more demoralising for a man who had returned injured to be told he could not work. It worked hard on many fronts but none more so than for these men. The Poppy Factory, one of the Legion’s best-known and popular undertakings helped thousands of men and families over the years offering employment and support. It still does. Poppy making is a year-round business and although the busiest period is in the run up to Remembrancetide, there is a permanent workforce at the factories in Richmond and Aylesford who keep the poppies and wreaths pouring off the production line.

Men working at the Poppy Factory 1930s (c) Poppy Factory Archive
Working on wreaths at the Poppy Factory in Richmond, 2020 (c) Royal British Legion/Gavin Kingcombe

A less well-known project is the car park attendant scheme. It may not strike you as the most exciting thing that you have ever heard of but bear with me. By the late 1920s the motor car had become a familiar sight on Britain’s road. Of the roughly 2 million vehicles in circulation, just under half were privately owned cars. That meant that people could take use their cars for leisure journeys, such as eating out, going to the cinema or shopping. A horrible side-effect of increased motoring was high road fatalities. In 1934 over 7,000 people were killed in car-related accidents, with pedestrians being half of the victims. Put into context, there were 38.7 million vehicles registered on Britain’s roads in 2019 and the road deaths totalled 1,870.

Some of the most dangerous places were town and city streets. With no official car parking in place, apart from in London, motorists simply left their cars where they wanted, regardless of how dangerous that might be to fellow road users and pedestrians. Councils realised that something had to be done and in 1927 the Rochdale South Branch of the Legion set the ball rolling. They agreed with the town council that in exchange for a rent-free piece of land they would employ two disabled men to run the first town car park. Rochdale Council let the Legion erect a hut and the two men, in attendants’ uniforms, manned the carpark on behalf of the town. This was so successful that it was repeated in towns and seaside resorts all over the country. It thrived after the Second World War and by 1960 the Car Park Attendants Scheme employed over 3,000 men. Today carparks are generally automated but spare a thought when you leave your vehicle in a little car park tucked away behind a municipal theatre or town market-place: it was probably first run by a disabled veteran supported by the Legion.

Men inspecting a taxi at the London Taxi School (c) Getty Images

We all know about London taxi drivers whose knowledge of the metropolis within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross is so great that they are known to have a larger and more developed hippocampus than the rest of us mortal souls. Did you know, however, that at one stage a third of all London cabbies had been through the British Legion’s London Taxi School? I, for one, did not, so thought it worth exploring. The School opened its doors in 1928 and was available to ex-Servicemen. It was particularly popular amongst those with spinal injuries who could not stand for long periods or operate heavy machinery. The idea came from Lieutenant General Sir Edward Bethune who was a veteran of the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80, the First and Second Boer Wars, and the First World War. He believed that men who had learned to drive during the war would be suitable students. The scheme was supported by the Legion’s Honorary Treasurer, Sir Jack Brunel Cohen MP, who had lost both his legs in 1917. He and Sir Edward succeeded in getting Lord Nuffield to donate a taxi for training purposes.

14th October 1947: Mr Turner briefs prospective taxi drivers on bicycles at taxi school at Harleyford Street, Kennington. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The Taxi School was run by the Legion, who paid for a third of the costs, the remaining two thirds being covered by the government. The training was arduous, taking at least 12 months and often longer with men going out day after day, week after week, on bicycle or on foot, notebooks in hand, noting routes and “points” where taxis are usually picked up. Fred Marks, who completed the course in 1947, wrote about his experiences: ‘When at long last the Carriage Office is satisfied [with your knowledge] then comes your driving test – a stiff one. You are directed into a narrow back street and told to turn your cab around. A private motorist would do it in 20 movements, perhaps. You must do it in three.’ Remember, readers, this is pre-power steering, so not an easy feat. The Legion’s London Taxi School ran for 67 years. By the time it closed its doors in 1995 over 5,000 men had passed the famous Knowledge and the stringent driving test to become a London cab driver.

There is still a connection today. Any ex-Serviceman or woman who is scheduled to attend the National Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in London in November can hail a participating Poppy Cab at one of the agreed points around the capital and find him or herself transported there and back for free. The cost of this service is supported by the Legion, which gives the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans an annual grant. It is one of the most popular ways of helping veterans to get to and from the Cenotaph. The taxi drivers, some of whom had been through the Legion’s Taxi School, see it as a way to pay back part of the debt owed to the veterans old and young.

Chelsea Pensions with Poppy Cabs

One way and another the Royal British Legion has helped to keep veterans on the move for over a century and in a way that we, the public, have all benefited from.

The Duke of Edinburgh

When the Duke of Edinburgh’s death was announced this morning, I found myself recalling a wonderful afternoon in Paris in 1992 when I had to show him around an exhibition. I was working for the Henry Moore Foundation at the time, and we were staging a huge show of his largest sculptures in the Jardins de Bagatelle in Paris. It had been the most complex logistical project I had ever worked on and the installation alone had taken three weeks. The lorries bringing the sculptures from Perry Green in Hertfordshire to Paris had to travel through the night as convoi exceptionel were not permitted on the periphérique later than 5am.

Early morning delivery to the Jardins de Bagatelle in Paris (C) M. Muller

We would all gather at the magnificent baroque entrance gates to the Parc at around 6am, where the crane and lorry drivers would be standing around eating croissants and drinking coffee with the prostitutes who occupied that spot during the night hours. They were a fabulous group of people and we had many laughs about the ridiculous idea of lifting three or four tons of bronze over a set of Baroque gates every morning.

The installation team from the Henry Moore Foundation and MoMart with me and Catherine Ferbos Nakov (centre) trying to keep control.
(C) M. Muller

The installation of 29 massive works by Moore was an interesting combination of heavy lifting and exact precision. Each work had to be lowered by crane or forklift onto a pedestal that was less than 5cm larger than the base of the sculpture. And it had to be done exactly right each time as any shifting around damaged the plasterwork on the breeze blocks which meant retouching and repainting.

Lifting several tons of bronze over a Baroque gate is a terrifying manoeuvre (C) M. Muller
Hill Arches the right side of the Baroque Gates (C) M. Muller

By the time we had finished the exhibition in late May I had cycled hundreds of kilometres around the beautiful Jardins de Bagatelle, avoiding the peacocks. The opening of the exhibition was to coincide with a royal visit to Paris and would be conducted by Her Majesty The Queen with the Duke of Edinburgh, in the presence of the François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, who at the time was Mayor of Paris. The Foundation’s director, the late Sir Alan Bowness, was to show The Queen around the exhibition and I was asked to guide the Duke.

I was given a few instructions about protocol including a warning not to ask any questions and not to leave long silences. When the Royal party arrived, I was standing in the appointed place and curtsied to The Queen, who looked at me with her piercing eyes, and then presented to the Duke with whom I set off, a few steps behind The Queen and Alan. We got to the first sculpture, Hill Arches. The Duke turned to me and said: ‘I don’t like Moore’s sculptures’. Oops. This was going to be a very long hour and a half, I thought.  Then I remembered he was interested in engineering. ‘Well Sir’ I said, ‘shall I tell you how we got them into the grounds?’ He was fascinated and asked many questions about the cranes we used, the lorries making their stately progress across northern France and the prostitutes who shared our croissants with us.

The Duke of Edinburgh and me at the opening of Moore a Bagatelle, 10 June 1992 (C) M. Muller

At one stage we had to walk through a long lane between dense shrubs with no sculptures to look at but with a lovely view of the west of Paris in the distance. ‘I grew up over there.’ He said, pointing to Neuilly. He spoke a little about what it had been like growing up outside Paris and how he had known the Jardins de Bagatelle when he was young. Then there was silence. I got a bit anxious, so I decided to chance it and bring up my grandfather, who he had known well in the 1970s when he, the Duke, was Patron of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and my grandfather was the president.

Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey, also known (to us) as Grandpa Bush (c) Toosey Family

At the mention of his name the Duke stopped dead in the middle of the lane, looked me straight in the eyes and said: ‘Good gracious, are you Phil Toosey’s granddaughter?’ When I said I was he went into a long speech about how much good work my grandfather had done for the Far Eastern Prisoners of War and what a great contribution the School had made to FEPOW health under his presidency. He ended by asking me: ‘Is your mother here today?’ When I said she was he insisted I point her out so he could go over and shake her hand, but not before he had met the lorry drivers who had brought the sculptures to Paris. As we approached the end of the walk, where the crowd of guests had gathered to meet the Royal party, he marched past all the dignitaries from the British Embassy and the Mayor’s office, straight up to Eric, the head lorry driver, whose 42nd birthday it was, and wished him a very happy birthday. ‘A date you share with me,’ he added with a twinkly smile. Of course, it was 10 June 1992, the Duke’s 71st birthday. Eric was overwhelmed but the Duke’s greeting put him at his ease.

He then walked over to my mother, who was shaking like a leaf, and said: ‘Hello Gillian, it’s very lovely to see you here.’ He talked briefly about her father and how much he used to enjoy seeing him in Liverpool when he attended meetings at the School of Tropical Medicine. After that, the Royal party left and Mum and I went out with my husband Chris and various other members of the Henry Moore Foundation team for a long dinner.

There is a PS to this story. Fast forward to 2005 and the publication of my book The Colonel of Tamarkan, the biography of my grandfather and his role in the construction of the bridges on the River Kwai. The book came out in October and the following April a very excited postman arrived at my door with a special delivery. The Duke had seen the book in a catalogue and had bought and read a copy. On page 361 I had written the story of the Blackpool FEPOW reunion of 1973 when my grandfather had hosted him at an event for 3,000 former prisoners of war. The Duke had a strong connection to the men as he and his ship had picked up two Royal Marines in August 1945. The two had been prisoners of the Japanese and had escaped from captivity in the final days of the Second World War. They spotted British vessels near the entrance to Tokyo Bay and immediately stripped off and swam out to safety.

The Duke told this story to the 3,000 men gathered in Blackpool and as soon as he finished a voice piped up from the back of the hall: ‘They’re here!’ The Duke and my grandfather made their way through a sea of excited men who cheered and clapped as the two former Royal Marines and their erstwhile rescuer were reunited. On that occasion the Duke spent so much time with the men that he had to leave for his next appointment without having met and shaken hands with the Mayor of Blackpool and other grandees. My grandfather was highly amused by that.

When I saw the postman this morning, we reflected with sadness that there would be no more recorded deliveries from Windsor Castle for me. But what memories.

Count Down to a Centenary

Two months from now, on 15 May 2021, the Royal British Legion will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Born out of the ashes of the First World War, the Legion was the amalgamation of several ex-Services organisations, all fighting on behalf of those wounded, disabled, widowed or orphaned by war. Over the last century the Legion has become part of the British cultural landscape. Remembrance and the Poppy are its most recognisable features but there is so much more to this great organisation as I discovered while working on a book for its centenary. I am going to celebrate the RBL in a monthly blog leading up to 15th May with a few behind-the-scenes stories.

In October 2019 the Royal British Legion commissioned me to work on a book to be published in May 2021. Of course I had no inkling that I would have to write it under pandemic conditions. When the first lockdown was introduced in March 2020 many people assumed that writers had never had it so good. With no distractions such as travel to book festivals or teaching commitments, we were surely in a uniquely wonderful position to write. Weeks, possibly months of forced isolation stretched ahead – a writer’s dream. As with so many dreams, the reality turned out to be very different. Living in forced isolation was one thing, but being deluged by grim headlines and worse death figures daily, plus the lingering fear of an invisible enemy in our midst, it was far from the utopian quiet that writers crave.

A selection of the Legion’s Journal, bound annually. Note the tiny volumes from the Second World War years thanks to paper rationing

But I had a deadline. The first draft of my book was due to be handed over to the publishers in September. My problem was that from early March I had no access to Haig House in London’s Borough High Street, where the Legion’s archive material is stored. Nor could I get to libraries or Legion branches. Everything would have to be done remotely and that required a radical rethink of my usual working methods. Those who know me well are aware that I am happiest when ferreting around in old paper files, reading last century’s news and talking to archivists whose passion it is to preserve our nation’s memory.

One stroke of luck occurred in late May when it was briefly possible to gain access to Haig House. I was able to procure a number of bound copies of the Legion’s Journal, their monthly magazine, dating back to 1921.

The first British Legion journal, July 1921

I could not have the full set so I was invited to take a stab at the years I thought would be of greatest significance to me. Quite the challenge so I chose 32 volumes between 1921 and 1972 which included anniversary years 1931, 1941, 1951, 1961 and 1971 as well as all the volumes from the Second World War, which were tiny owing to the shortage of paper. There was also an important photograph album from the Legion’s peace visit to Germany in 1935 which I also requested.

The operation to secure this valuable material was undertaken in the form of a heist. My officer son was dispatched to Haig House to collect the journals and was alarmed to be handed a large red album with a swastika on the front. Being inscrutable he did not flinch, but he did express his surprise when he arrived home in Oxford with his precious cargo. With the exception of one or two volumes that might have been useful, these monthly magazines in their beautiful leather bindings, gave me as much information as I could possibly have needed for the potted history of the Legion I had been asked to write.

What I had not expected from the Journals was the rich picture they offered of life in Britain in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, especially for those disabled by their war service. Yet these magazines were far from depressing. They were uplifting. The energy behind the early founders of the Legion was remarkable and the men and women who worked as grass roots level in the branches that sprang up around the country no less so. This was a young man’s organisation. The Legion’s first chairman was in his early thirties, many of the men on branch committees in their twenties. They were not grandees – although Field Marshal Haig and Edward, Prince of Wales gave the leadership clout with the government when needed – they were ordinary men and women who cared passionately about making post-First World War Britain a better place. And help was much needed.

Over 6 million men had served during the First World War, of whom 1.1 million were killed, including 350,000 from overseas, and some 1.75 million wounded. Of that latter number over half were permanently disabled. Widows, orphans, families of the wounded, the disabled and the unemployed all needed the Legion’s support. At that stage, the Legion estimated it had responsibility for up to 20 million people and it relied, in the main, on its volunteer army of members and officers to carry out the welfare help required.

The Royal British Legion is an organisation with a big heart and it has been the joy of writing this book to lift the lid on the myriad ways the Legion has made so many people’s lives better. From facing down the government on pensions and war disability payments to helping veterans with physical and mental health problems the Legion never gives up. It works day in, day out and the work it does really matters. It saves lives.

Over the next weeks and months, you will read and hear a lot about the Royal British Legion as it celebrates its centenary. I am very proud to have been a part of sharing that story, particularly the early years when the vital groundwork was laid. Watch out for my next couple of blogs when I will lift the lid on some of the less well-known aspects of the organisation most of us think of only around Remembrance Sunday.

We Are The Legion will be published by Profile Books, 6 May 2021

The Mystery of Sandy Irvine

Sandy aged 21 photographed for the Oxford University 1923 Blue Boat

96 years ago, today, 8th June 1924, my great uncle stepped into the pages of history. He was the nd’Irvine of the greatest mountaineering mystery of all times, the junior climbing partner of the great George Mallory. From the moment of their disappearance, somewhere close to the loftiest spot on earth, Mallory and Irvine’s names have been inextricably linked. The question everyone wants to know is this: were Mallory and Irvine the first men to stand on the summit of Mount Everest, 29 years before Hilary and Tenzing?

Two decades ago, I published a biography of Uncle Sandy, as he was always known in our family. It caused a little stir at the time and added yet one more book to the more than 1,000 written about Mount Everest since the 1920s. Sandy was only 22 when he died, Mallory 37. Sandy had had little mountaineering experience while Mallory was judged to be one of the best rock climbers of his generation. All the odds were against Sandy Irvine being an equal partner to Mallory. Yet I found evidence in letters, which had been hiding in a trunk in the attic of a house in North Wales for three quarters of a century, that Mallory had selected Sandy as his climbing partner as early as mid-April 1924. He wrote to his mother on 24th:

I have provisionally been chosen to do the first oxygen climb with Mallory.  Norton & Somervell doing Non ox. on same day.  It will be great fun if we all 4 get to the top at the same time!  I say provisionally because I don’t know that I will be fit at 26,500 ft yet (our kicking off camp). The weather has behaved in a most peculiar manner so far – no one knows if it is a good sign or not.

Prior to this, mountaineering historians had offered a variety of views as to why Mallory chose Irvine, some suggesting it was a physical attraction. I was always of the opinion that Mallory had accepted that it was necessary to use oxygen for the last 3,000 feet of the climb, based on the experience of the 1922 expedition. Sandy, who was a technical whiz when it came to fixing the oxygen sets, was the obvious person to take along if he proved himself at altitude. Mallory had good reason to think he would, as he had shown he was as strong as an ox on the trek and had performed well on the high passes in Tibet. The other thing that Mallory understood was that Sandy, as a top-class rower, would have the courage to push himself to his physical limit. It was a good combination.

Mallory (left) and Sandy Irvine leaving Camp IV on 6 June 1924. It was taken by Noel Odell as they made the final tweaks to their kit. c. Royal Geographical Society

So off they went, on 6th June 1924, to Camp V and the following day to Camp VI, their high camp, which in reality was a tiny two man tent which Sandy instantly turned into a makeshift workshop to prepare the oxygen apparatus for their early start the next day. We will never know for sure what happened when they left their tent but Noel Odell, climbing in support and one camp behind, spotted what he believed was a tiny figure climbing over a patch of white snow just a few hundred feet below the summit. He watched and saw a second figure joining the first. Then the summit was enveloped in cloud and when it lifted 15 minutes later there was no sign of the two climbers. They had disappeared from view.

From that day onwards people have thought, written, argued about what happened and how far they got. Some believe they made it to the summit and died on the descent, others are sure they were thwarted by the Second Step, a steep rock face that now has a ladder attached to it for easier passage. In May 1999, George Mallory’s frozen body was found in the snow some 1,500 metres below the summit. He had taken a fall, broken his ankle and cut his forehead. The discovery of notes in his pocket, a watch (broken), altimeter (broken) and other objects threw no light on the question of whether they got to the top or not. In fact, it raised more questions than it answered.

Sandy’s pressure kettle, designed so he could have a hot cup of tea. It was one of the few objects that came back from the mountain without him.

In four years’ time it will be the 100th anniversary of their climb and disappearance. Surely there will not be anyone still interested in their story. When I wrote my book in 1999, I was able to meet three people who had known Sandy Irvine, but they are all long dead. We have no more information now than we had after Mallory’s body was found. Yet still this mystery – British mountaineering’s greatest – continues to fascinate people. There have been no fewer than a dozen expeditions in the last 20 years which have set out with the express aim of finding Sandy’s body and answering the question for once and for all. None has succeeded.

Recently a young filmmaker, Archie Price Siddiqui, made an eight minute film about the last climb of Mallory and Irvine. It is a very accomplished piece of work and I thought I would share it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0G-RVEnT-E&feature=youtu.be. What it proved to me, if indeed I needed convincing, is that the mystery continues to fascinate people.

This was sent back to my grandmother, Sandy’s sister, in 1933. In this scrap of cloth she found 20 Himalayan garnets. It was a present from Karma Paul, the translator on the expedition who had had the most to do with Sandy while dealing with the porters on the trek.

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that I think the reason why the question of whether Mallory and Irvine made it to the top of Mount Everest in 1924 still intrigues us is because we love stories and better still, we love mysteries. Some people have tried to explain it away as a celebration of glorious British failure but, frankly, I think that is rubbish. Their deaths came six years after the end of the bloodiest war in history. There was little appetite for glorious failure in Britain in 1924. Believe me, I’ve spent the last six months writing about it for the Royal British Legion. No, this is all about mystery and storytelling. When people ask me if I want Sandy’s body found so we will finally know whether they were the first men to stand on the summit of the earth I say: ‘No. It’s a mystery. Let us leave it at that.’

The Cost of War

Soldiers in Wrexham

Today is Friday 8 May 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Seventy-five years ago today the costliest war in history was finally drawing to a close, though its end would not come until 15 August 1945 when the Japanese Imperial Army surrendered unconditionally. Costliest in terms of lives – historians estimate 60 million men, women and children, military and civilian, lost their lives. A generation of children had grown up knowing nothing but war as the backdrop to their lives. In Britain, those children at least had more or less enough to eat. In Nazi-occupied Europe whole families were starving while further afield the famine in Bengal cost the lives of 3 million people. Costliest in terms of economic damage – Britain was almost bankrupt as a result of the war. And costliest in terms of its impact on society. Hitler had boasted the German Reich would last for 1,000 years. It went on for 12 long, destructive years but the impact of it has lasted for eight decades and it will go on for many more.

Soldiers from Jamaica

Today we have been celebrating and commemorating those brave men and women who fought for Britain abroad and on the Home Front. We have heard extraordinary stories from veterans, like the Jamaican, Alan Wilmot who flew with air-sea rescue, saving up to 17,000 lives, or Donald Hunter who sailed with the Merchant Navy from the age of 16. There have been tributes from people who were children at the end of the war. Everyone spoke with warmth of their memories of that special day, but few mentioned what had happened after VE Day was over.

The morning of 9th May 1945 was another bank holiday. Britain woke up with a national hangover and probably a few sore heads too. Barbara Cartland, then 44 years of age, summed up the feelings of many of her generation:

‘We were glad, but still our hearts refused to sing, the shadow of war still lay over us in a restriction of freedom, in controls and coupons. We had only to look at our empty larders, empty store cupboards and half empty coal cellars to know war had not receded very far from our daily lives. To practically everyone in Great Britain the war had brought the loss of someone they loved – either man, woman or child – and for many there were crippled bodies or blinded eyes as a legacy from the nights of terror and fire.’

Barbara Cartland The Years of Opportunity 1939-1945
Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942

Twelve years ago I wrote a book called Stranger in the House that looked at the impact of returning servicemen and women on life at home. It was at times a heart-breaking book to research and I wrote several of the stories weeping onto my keyboard. I know that it affects readers too: my friend John wrote to me only this week to say that he has never cried so many times over a book as over that one. Am I sorry? No, not really. These are human stories that needed to be told. We have to understand the cost of war. It is not possible to gloss over the inconvenient truths, the ugly aspect of readjusting to life after war and to imagine that all the veterans are great heroes who shrugged off the impact of what they did and saw. They did not. They could not. Some will never be able to stop the memories coming back. And that applies to young men and women who in the more recent past have taken up arms on behalf of Britain in conflicts all over the world. They cannot be unaffected by what they witness.

At the moment I am writing a book for the Royal British Legion’s centenary in 2021. Once again, I am reminded of the enormous cost of war and the extraordinary efforts that people go to in order to try and alleviate the pain and distress returning service personnel and their families suffer. The story of the Legion is the story of our country’s twentieth and now twenty-first century wars and the impact they have had on our society. The Legion helped to shape Remembrance, it is a peaceful, peace loving organisation and it has a most generous welfare programme. It has fought for pensions, disability rights and widows’ allowances for 99 years and it is not going to be giving up any time soon.

As I work through the research I am reminded, daily, of the terrible situations faced by men coming home from the First World War. 2,300,000 ex-service personnel returned injured or disabled to a Britain that was suffering from an economic decline, that did not have the jobs, housing or welfare for them. The Legion had an enormous job on its hands to help those affected by the war, including hundreds of thousands of widows, orphaned children, the sick, disabled and unemployed. But it set about the task with impressive energy and focus. The Legion changed many things over the first twenty years of its existence and one of those was the way returning men were treated. By 1945 there was a better, more humane system in place. But even they cannot make the nightmares, the feelings of dislocation and the difficulties of settling down as a family go away. That has, eventually, to come from the individuals and their families.

In my most recent book, Dressed for War, the emphasis was on Audrey Withers’ life and on her energy and courage during the darkest days of the 1940s. Yet even in that book there is a major casualty of war. Her star photojournalist, the brilliant, brave and tireless Lee Miller, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in the post-war era. She never really recovered her equilibrium. She was one of thousands who suffered, many silently, from the impact of their wartime experiences.

So, without wanting to throw a bucket of cold water on the celebrations around VE 75, I just think it is worth remembering that war has a far-reaching impact on everyone involved.

Coping in a Crisis

Several people have asked me what Audrey Withers’ reaction to the current crisis would have been. I have thought about it a lot and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to compare 1940 and 2020.

Fashion is Indestructible by Cecil Beaton, June 1941 © Conde Nast Publications Ltd

At the beginning of the Second World War the government closed down the country. It banned all public gatherings, sporting events and race meetings. Theatres and cinemas were ordered to close and no group meetings of more than 100 people were permitted anywhere except at church. Does this sound familiar? The introduction of petrol rationing from midnight on the day war was declared and the blackout altered people’s lives even more directly. The shutdown lasted for just twelve days but it had the effect of changing people’s behaviour, the way they thought about being at war – even though the war proper did not affect them until the spring of the following year – and it changed the way people moved around.

Now, in 2020, we are in equally uncertain times but on this occasion we are not terrified of air raid or gas attacks but of an invisible virus. The government is not only protecting its citizens but our wonderful, precious but horribly overstretched NHS.

So what would Audrey have done? The answer depends of course on what period of her life we are going to imagine in this hypothetical situation. Let’s place her in London at the beginning of the Blitz, days after she has been named as editor of Vogue, when nightly air raids and daily warnings disrupted life in so many ways. Audrey wrote an article about living under those conditions for American Vogue. She described how every night she and her editorial and art staff packed up a large laundry basket with all their ‘treasures’ and every morning the basket was unpacked and work began again. ‘If the siren goes work goes on until the alarm warns that planes are overhead or that guns are firing with the result that we now take shelter less frequently but more rapidly.’

I find in here a hint of how in the very early days of the Blitz there had been a touch of panic but by early October, when she wrote this article, she had got used to the bombing.

We grab work and paraphernalia, descend six flights of stone stairs to the basement. We look as if we are going on a peculiar picnic: coats slung around our shoulders; attaché- cases with proofs, photographs, layouts, copy, mixed up with gas- masks, sandwiches and knitting. The Art Department men carry under one arm a stack of drawings and layouts; and under the other, a stirrup pump, a pick axe or a shovel. It’s a peculiar picnic all right.

Audrey working in the bomb cellar of One New Bond Street in October 1940. As usual, she was wearing a hat.

She described how they greeted each other every morning with ‘what kind of night did you have?’ and how gallows humour soon emerged and kept them sane even when the news was grim. ‘A feeble joke makes us laugh, and we’re glad of the chance to laugh at anything; and on the other hand, you get oddly insensitive and callous, and are amused by incidents that normally you would have found macabre.’ She concluded the article by saying that they lived day by day, not looking too far ahead but always trying to be organised and practical.

It would be wrong to paint Audrey as instinctively brave. She was not courageous like her fearless photo-journalist, Lee Miller, but she became brave through sheer hard work and a determination to keep going under any circumstances and she was organised. Another aspect of her personality was her deep and furious dislike of cheating of any sort. She railed against people who bribed shopkeepers to give them a little bit extra over the ration and she despaired about Vogue readers who cheated with their clothing coupons. I suspect she would have had something to say about panic buying and, worse still, the scalpers who clean out supermarket shelves and then offer the products for sale at a higher cost. Spivs are what those people were called during the war and Audrey despised them.

She was a caring person and I am sure that she would have worried about people being lonely and cut off. There was no compulsory self-isolation during the war but petrol rationing had more or less the same effect for people living in the countryside. Her parents, both in their seventies, had been socially active in the nineteen twenties and thirties. By 1940 they were living on the edge of a small village outside Banbury seeing almost nobody week in, week out. They were lonely and depressed by her father’s ill health. Audrey and her sister, Monica, tried to ensure they had visits or letters as often as circumstances permitted.

As we are today, so Audrey was overwhelmed by government advice. During the war it was called propaganda and it was sometimes issued three or four times a day. The Board of Trade published nearly 200 notices in one year on the subject of women’s underwear alone. The ministries of food, agriculture, health and so on were equally busy bombarding editors with information. Audrey had to decide what to publish in Vogue, a monthly magazine, and what could be ignored as it had already been dealt with by the daily press.

By the end of 1940, when London had been bombed for 56 nights consecutively, Audrey could be proud that she had managed to get the October, November and December editions of her magazine out almost on time. November had been two days late and December just one. One of her staff, Audrey Stanley, wrote to Condé Nast describing how they had coped during those difficult months:

We went through such a transitional stage and we did not know exactly what to strive for as everything was so precarious and atmosphere and feeling was as fickle as the wind, but now I really think a comprehensive pattern has come out of it all. Audrey Withers is a remarkable person. She has such balance and tact and we all admire her enormously as being editor just now must be a difficult job.

Audrey Withers by Cecil Parkinson, 1944 © Norman Parkinson Archive

As the war went on, Audrey became more confident in her role as editor and more impressive in the way she coped with the pressure. In 1944 the President of the Board of Trade, Hugh Dalton, described her as the most powerful woman in London.

If we can take a message from Audrey’s strategy for coping in difficult circumstances I suggest it would be to keep calm and play fair. And, if you fancy, wear a hat.

Audrey’s Miniature Wardrobe for Today’s World

Now that Audrey is launched in Dressed for War she is public property. People have begun to contact me to tell me things about her which of course I wished I had known when I was writing the book. That always happens, though, so I have given up getting paranoid about missing out on every last gem. However, people have also been talking to me about how relevant they find Audrey’s attitude towards clothes rationing and how it rings a bell for today’s concerns about excess consumption and waste.

Last week I was thrilled to find a copy of the September 1943 edition of British Vogue with its stand-out beautiful cover and fascinating articles by Cecil Beaton, Lesley Blanch and Lee Miller. Audrey’s editorial for that edition was entitled Miniature Wardrobe. ‘Wardrobes are shrinking fast,’ she wrote, ‘and the smaller they get the more perfect they have to be.’ That autumn she would tell the New York editor of Vogue that she had in her personal wardrobe three suits, which she varied with blouses and accessories, one cashmere dress for dining out and two pairs of ‘slacks’ which she wore with baggy jumpers at weekends. She concluded her editorial: ‘In a miniature wardrobe – as in a small circle of friends – versatility is to be prized and bores not admitted.’ Coming a year after the introduction of Utility clothing and Austerity design it is clear to me that Audrey and her fashion editors were trying to encourage an upbeat message in straitened circumstances.

Audrey’s editorial in Sept 1943 Vogue

For Audrey Withers and her generation, recycling, making-do and mending, refashioning clothes and eking out the last few months of an old suit was part of their every day after clothes rationing was introduced in June 1941. In fact, before that date there had been a ban on the sale of silk stockings and all sorts of clothing was in short supply as a result of the bombing of factories. In comparison to a human life, clothing must have seemed unimportant. Yet it was not dispensable. At the most basic level, people had to keep warm. Children needed clothes and shoes to go to school. Men and women had to be dressed to go to work, whether in factories, in secretarial offices or indeed in the editor’s office of the most prestigious fashion magazine. The government understood that clothing was also important for morale. That is one of the reasons why they allowed the women’s magazines to continue to publish, albeit with a reduced quantity of paper.

Today, in Britain at least, we are not in the position of having to limit our wardrobes because of clothes rationing. We live in an altogether different time. A time of plenty which is running into an era of excess. Perhaps we can learn lessons from Audrey Withers. Barbara Guarducci and Saskia Terzani certainly seemed to think so when I met them via Skype in the autumn of 2019. They founded Mending for Good ‘to provide ethical solutions for fashion waste.’ When I met Barbara in London in November, she and I quickly found that we had the same anxiety about the vast excess that fashion creates. My concern came from having spent six years writing about wartime clothing, hers from a lifetime’s experience of the fashion industry but we met at the same point: we have to declare war on overproduction and waste. We are living beyond our means in terms of our impact on the environment and we have to change the culture that permits over-consumption.

Barbara, Saskia and I decided to team up to help launch Mending for Good at the same time as we launched Audrey in Dressed for War. The themes seemed to align so well. Then came the suggestion to produce a series of embroideries of Audrey’s phrases that she used in Vogue to exhort readers to think about their clothes. Taken on their face value they seem to have as much relevance today as they did eighty years ago: Wage War Against Waste, Quality Rather than Quantity, but also the more reassuring: You Cannot Ration Style or Relax and Mend.

Mending for Good works with the London College of Fashion’s vocational training and ethical manufacturing initiative. That sounds a bit of a mouthful but it is a wonderful undertaking that gives employment opportunities women in socially frail and challenging circumstances. We commissioned a group of women in HMP/YOI Downview Prison to create 100 embroideries with eight different messages. We gave them away to guests at the book launch and they proved so popular that I have only the original eight examples left.

Four of the embroideries created by women from HMP/YOI Downview 2020

I know Audrey would have approved of this initiative on so many levels. After the war she strove hard to make people – young women in particular – think about the fashion industry as a career that could help to make a difference. She ran a competition in Vogue from 1945 to get this message across. Today the London College of Fashion’s Making for Change initiative and my friends at Mending for Good are both trying to help change the way people think about fashion production. That is a wonderful thing.
I believe Audrey’s wartime campaign to encourage women to think responsibly but creatively about fashion can find echoes in today’s world.

Setting Audrey Free

There is a moment in a book’s life when it is no longer the personal, much-loved friend it was during research, writing and editing. This is when it goes to print and the powerful machine of publicity grinds into action. It might seem strange to express a book’s publication thus but it is something I and other writers have experienced. As the novelist, Diane Setterfield, said recently: ‘You care about your book. You love it deeply but it does not love you back. It would eat you alive if it needed to.’ I know exactly what she means. A book develops a life of its own. It goes out into the world as a published hardcover: Dressed for War will have an existence far beyond my desk – in bookshops, on shelves in libraries and private homes, as a second-hand ex-review copy on Amazon. It might be well reviewed. It might get a hostile reception – I have had experience of both – but it is out of my hands.

My desk on 7 January 2019 with notebooks, my favourite pen and Audrey to inspire me.

When I started writing Audrey Withers’ autobiography on 7 January 2019 I was still in that blissful state of privacy and intimacy with my subject. For three months it was just me and the material in my little office at the top of my home in Oxford. I watched the garden wake up from its winter slumbers as I wrote about Lee Miller and Cecil Beaton. I heard the first cuckoo of the year as I was describing the heart-breaking moment when Audrey’s beloved father, Percy, died. And I had my first glass of wine in the greenhouse the day I wrote the last sentence of the first draft. Eleven and a half months later I sent off the final proofs and the lovely picture section for the last time, having read the book sixteen times in draft and proof form.

A spread from Vogue, June 1957 by William Klein © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

I shared all the writing stages in my quarterly blogs and as each one was finished, I experienced a different emotional reaction: relief at first, panic when the deadline was brought forward by six weeks, grief when the third proofs went off and now anxiety. At the end of this coming week the printers will run off the first copies. Of course I am excited about it but I am also nervous and there is so much still to do. As an author I have to work flat out with publicists and marketing people to make sure the book is noticed. And believe me, it really does matter.

I have my own publicist, Richard Leon, who works alongside the excellent team at Simon & Schuster led by Becky and Rich. Together they have cooked up a publicity and marketing plan that involves every possible media platform you can name and some that I cannot. I have been booked to speak at a dozen literary festivals already and there are bound to be more to come. I hope we might get some radio coverage and perhaps even a little bit of TV. This all sounds glamorous but it is hard work. We have been planning and talking about how to ensure Dressed for War gets a good start since October 2018, which is three months before I typed the first sentence of the first draft.

The book that I have always referred to as Audrey will be published on 6 February 2020 with a party at Somerville College in Oxford and an interview with Diane Setterfield, which I am very much looking forward to. Two days before that we will launch the book in London at a joint event with a small team from Italy who run a project called Mending for Good. Today there is a growing appreciation of the impact of fashion’s carbon footprint on the environment and I feel certain that Audrey would have been behind any project that challenged waste and encouraged good practice. After all, she presided over the most dramatic movement in wartime fashion, the Utility and Austerity scheme. This dictated skirt and shirt lengths;  it limited the number of pockets on jackets and the width of the gusset in women’s knickers. It feels fitting to focus on the future as well as on the past as we celebrate setting Audrey free.

Visitors to the 2015 Imperial War Museums exhibition Fashion on the Ration, dressed in 1940s costumes © IWM.org

As Dressed for War leaves me bobbing in its wake, I will try to be sanguine about the reaction of the reviewers who will express their opinions, whether good or bad. It is a fact that writers, as other performers, tend to remember the bad reviews. But what I really long for, and what I think every writer longs for, is the moment when we come face to face with a reader who has got something personal to say about the book we have just published. It does not always happen but when it does it is as important as any review. And that won’t happen unless we get the publicity right, which is why Richard, Becky and I are working so hard behind the scenes to make it work.

This is the preview of the book https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEvw_APrtX8&feature=youtu.be

Hidden Secrets

Poppies of Remembrance at the Thiepval Memorial, Somme © Brian Harris

The build up to Remembrance Day always reminds me of the importance of memories. I’m talking here about national memories as much as personal ones. Two organisations most closely connected in the public’s imagination to memories in this context are the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who I worked for part-time from 2005 to 2015 and the Royal British Legion, who I will be working for from now until 2021. Both these great bodies focus a significant part of their work on remembering the individual servicemen and women who died in the service of their country. They do much else besides but both have outstanding archives that tell the story of the organisation and the people involved in them.

Menin Gate, Ypres, where over 54,000 names of the missing are recorded © Brian Harris

Having spent all my working life using archives I thought it would be a moment to reflect on the importance of archives and their role in preserving the nation’s memories, the world’s memories in some cases. If I asked anyone to name, say, three archives that would be places to consult when writing about the Second World War they would probably come up with Imperial War Museums, National Archives and the National Army Museum. You might not expect to find anything relevant to that topic in the archives of, for example, Barings Bank or Burberry or even the Met Office. But let me assure you that you can find material in the most unexpected places.

I am a regular visitor to the national collections such as Imperial War Museums and the National Archives but I also enjoy visiting the smaller archives that focus on one single issue, such as the Alpine Club or the Henry Moore Foundation. I did a quick calculation and jotted down the names of 38 archives I have visited in the last few years and I do not think that is close to the total I have consulted one way or another over the course of my working life.

It is hard to have a favourite because all archives are wonderful in their own right but one stands out for me as an experience I will never forget. I was writing The Colonel of Tamarkan, the biography of my grandfather, Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey, who was the senior British officer at the bridge camp over the river Kwai in Thailand. He spent all his working life at Barings Bank in Liverpool bar a few years in the early 1920s. Fortunately he did not live long enough to see it disgraced and then absorbed by ING in 1995. I wrote to bank in the hope that they might have kept personnel files from the Barings’ days and got a response by return to say that they had and I was welcome to visit. I made an appointment and set off with a spring in my step and a notebook and pencil in my bag.

Phil Toosey in Peru, 1935, on business for Barings

I arrived at an enormous glass and concrete building in the city and felt distinctly out of place among so many dark suits coming and going at great speed. The receptionist phoned through to the archives for me and there soon appeared the archivist himself, dressed in a brown tweed suit and wearing reassuringly thick glasses. He ushered me through the atrium and towards a brown domestic-sized door through which I stepped as if into another world. In fact, it was another world. It was an office full of old-fashioned filing cabinets and shelves bulging with books and folders. I was completely enchanted. The old office had apparently been transplanted lock, stock and barrel into the new building.

Toosey, February 1946, six months after being released from captivity and three months after arriving back in Britain

Sure enough the material was as good as the archive promised it should be. An entire personnel file on Toosey, including a fascinating exchange of a dozen or more letters between his boss, the Liverpool Agent for Barings, Alan Tod, and Evelyn Baring in London. So concerned were they for Toosey’s welfare (read mental health in today’s parlance) that they decided what he needed post-war was perspective with which to begin his new life after three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

They sent him to South America as a roving ambassador for the firm but really with a view to giving him a chance to find his feet again. It worked and he was forever grateful to Barings. So was I. What a treasure trove and so beautifully preserved. On the surface the file had nothing to do with the history of the bank but in reality it had everything to do with it. The bank was run by men, and a very few women, who were individuals with personal history, characters, foibles and in this case, a war record.

Other archives have been equally valuable and nothing is more thrilling than finding something that even the archivist did not know was there. In the Royal Geographical Society I found a piece of paper slipped into the back of a notebook which had not been unfolded for years. Very carefully the archivist and I took it out and read it. It made us laugh. It was a memo sent from camp 3 to camp 2 on Everest in 1924. Written by Edward Shebbeare, one of the support team, it read: ‘I’ve been out on the glacier for hours looking for Beetham. Either he is lost or he is with you. If the latter, he’s a bugger for not letting me know.’

For that book I also found the now famous trunk in the attic that contained all Sandy Irvine’s correspondence from the trek and the mountain from where he was never to return. There were photographs, sketches of his changes to the oxygen sets and, hauntingly for me, the final letter he wrote to his mother on 26th May 1924. The trunk was in a family attic in North Wales and it was the most significant archive find of my life. Until 2018, that was. But that is still under wraps and will be revealed in February when Dressed for War is published.

So when you think about remembrance, or just national memory, spare a thought for the wonderful archivists up and down the country and all over the world who take care of this precious material. If it had not been for organisations understanding the value of keeping material for the future and for archivists cataloguing, preserving and caring for it, the history of our lives would be greatly impoverished. An archive might be kept under a bed (yes, I’ve seen those) or in a cupboard in a private house. It might be in the corner of an office or in an attic. Material might be stored in cellars, attics, barns, stables or in carefully monitored air-conditioned buildings. It is all important and valuable. How this will be kept in the future in this, our digital age, I do not know. But for now I acknowledge archivists at every level because they deserve our gratitude.

These precious diaries are stored in a family collection