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Monday, 9 November 2009

Book Review: DO THE BIRDS STILL SING IN HELL?


DO THE BIRDS STILL SING IN HELL? by Horace ‘Jim’ Greasley

Appropriately, I finished reading this book on Remembrance Sunday. Long after I closed it, I’d remember Horace Greasley – and this story is a testament to his mates, those who survived with him but especially the many who succumbed to Nazi and German brutality.

I grew up with the plethora of war books in the 1950s, all of them memorable – Boldness Be My Friend (Richard Pape), The Wooden Horse (Eric Williams), The Great Escape and Escape or Die (Paul Brickhill), The Colditz Story (Pat Reid) and The Naked Island (Russell Braddon) to name a few. This book, a late contender, ranks up there with those classics. A number of those books were written in a novelistic style, but their stories were still true. Ghostwriter Ken Scott has chosen to follow that style of narrative here and it works splendidly with a well-structured and riveting story, penned from the lips of Horace whose arthritic fingers are not capable of writing or typing.

At the outbreak of war, gentlemen’s barber Horace Greasley joined the 2nd/5th Battalion Leicesters and in 1940 he was shipped to France. His combat days were deadly and dangerous but few as they were captured when their sergeant major surrendered rather than fight his way to freedom.

Horace was to spend the rest of the war as a prisoner. Nothing particularly different about that; this kind of story has been related often. But Horace is quite a character, it seems, and he has a mind of his own, and it’s his obstinate stubborn brave approach to his captors that enthrals the reader. Horace doesn’t like bullies and stands up to them – and often he gets a good beating for his trouble.

He suffered a terrible death march, where his comrades fell by the wayside and were despatched with Teutonic efficiency. He made friends with a few good strong men who saved his life more than once, but he’d repay them tenfold as their captivity stretched over the years. Because Horace was a staunch friend.

The privations of prisoner of war camps have been told before, but they need telling again. Each new generation should understand what war means. The inhumanity of warfare is troubling. After the concentration camps of the holocaust were discovered, the cries went up that this must never happen again. Sadly, it has, several times in our living memory.

At his first POW camp, Horace meets Rosa, an attractive Silesian girl acting as interpreter. Before long, the pair enjoy sex, snatching their moments of bliss virtually under the noses of the German guards. Then Horace and his comrades are moved to another camp. Yet Rosa follows and Horace effectively escapes at night, time and again, to prolong their liaison that develops from carnal passion to powerful love. Rosa risks all to help her Englishman and in turn Horace repeatedly puts his life in jeopardy to bring sustenance and even radio parts to his fellow prisoners. Both are made of the stuff of heroes. These are not superficial heroes of entertainment or sport. A hero is someone who knows he or she might die but willingly risks life and limb to help others in the name of love or humanity. The world needs more Horaces and Rosas.

When the classic war stories were published, public sensitivity was different to that of today. Now, Horace’s story contains graphic language, violence and sex, but it comes across as very real. Movingly real. By opening his heart and memory, Horace has found, in modern parlance, a form of closure. But he has done something else, too. He has ensured that his fallen comrades live on.

Footnote: Since I wrote this review, sadly Horace has died (25 December 1918 – 4 February 2010). There is a Wikipedia entry - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Greasley

If you enjoyed reading this short review, maybe you'll enjoy reading my book of 16 short stories, some of them prize-winners, and many based on true events; indeed, two are about the French resistance in WWII: When the Flowers Are in Bloom by Nik Morton -

 

6 comments:

Rob Innis said...

Nik, Great review on this amazing book which I too have read. I hope it gets the success it deserves.

Nik said...

Thanks, Rob. And of course you've met Horace himself!

Paul D. Brazill said...

Great review. never heard of the book before, I'm ashamed to say, but thanks for the tip off.

Nik said...

Definitely a worthwhile read, Paul. And this coming Christmas Day Horace will be 91... can't be bad.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading this at the moment, and I must admit that my first impressions are not good. Yes, Greasley was a brave man but also, it seems, a rather unpleasant one. For instance, on meeting the Sergeant-Major who saved his life (by surrendering to the German forces attacking them), he attacked the man and says that he can understand others that killed their officers. It seems he would have preferred a (pointless) blood-bath.

Greasley undoubtedly suffered during his incarceration, it is interesting to hear how 'other ranks' (he was a squadie) were treated, a far cry from the usual Officer's camps (where they had their own batmen and a bar, among other things), however he comes across as far less sympathetic than others who suffered as much, if not more, in Japanese POW camps.

All that aside, it is well written with a lively pace, just that I find it leaves a very sour taste in the mouth.

Nik said...

Anon, I can understand where you're coming from, but stick with it. Of course Horace is dead now, but at least he saw the book published.