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Monday 6 November 2023

JACKDAWS - book review


The prolific Ken Follett’s Jackdaws was published in 2001. His output is varied and broad in theme and place and time. Here, he returns to the Second World War and spies – some twenty-three years after his WWII debut novel Eye of the Needle.

The story covers the nine days before D-Day, June 6, 1944. Twenty-eight-year-old Felicity 'Flick' Clairet, an SOE agent is leading a Resistance assault on a French chateau in the village of Sainte-Cecile, the German communications hub for the area. But it goes wrong and she and her French husband barely manage to escape. Some of their team are killed and others are captured.

The German interrogator is Colonel Dieter Franck who, while not enjoying inflicting pain on his victims, is good at it. The Germans are aware that an invasion is about to occur soon and that will entail the rising up of many Resistance cells. He is certain that if he can break the will of his captives, he can learn details about the various groups.

Flick returns to England and is given permission to try again to crack the chateau communications hub. She recruits the Jackdaws, a ‘dirty half-dozen’ – all-female team to infiltrate in place of the regular cleaners. Not all of them will survive...

This is a typical Follett page-turner with characters you soon come to know and care about. Even Franck evokes a measure of sympathy. The interrogators, the invaders, considered the SOE agents as terrorists. Both sides were ruthless. In these sensitive times perhaps some readers will find certain aspects of the violence depicted as distressing; yet this kind of thing – and worse – happened. I’ve read a number of nonfiction and fiction books about the SOE and Follett’s research seems very accurate – and never slows the pace.

If you want an involving fast read, this suspenseful thriller will fit the bill.

Editorial comment:

Blame the editor. On p312 a coded message mentions Friday 1 June. Yet on p315 we’re told that Friday is 2 June. Oops. [Hopefully it has been amended since my 2002 edition].

Sunday 5 November 2023

NOBBUT A LAD - book review


Alan Titchmarsh’s memoir Nobbut a Lad – A Yorkshire childhood was published in 2006.

Titchmarsh is familiar to UK television viewers through his gardening and other programmes. He was born in May 1949 – so to me he is a contemporary and many of his reminiscences echo experiences I enjoyed in childhood. His novels show that he can write as well as attend to horticulture, and this endearing and at times touching book is enlivened not only with his good writing style but also with a wry sense of humour. 

So this is his story – ‘Not that it was without incident or occasional tragedy. But that’s growing up. And growing up, even in the best of all possible worlds, is a confusing thing to have to do’ (p9). This definitely is not a 'misery memoir'.

He was brought up proper. ‘At all times men walked on the outside of the pavement, ladies on the inside. I still do, even though it does sometimes cause confusion when after crossing the road, the woman I am walking with discovers that I’m not where I was’ (p15). [I used to do the same. I suspect the courtesy stems from those days when roadways were plagued by puddles and the wheels of passing carriages were liable to splash pedestrians. I don’t do it with my wife Jen; I always walk on her right-hand side, it’s her good ear. So part of the time I’m the gentleman of old, at others, not!]

It was the time of steam trains. On one jaunt to London with his parents he found himself on the famous Mallard. He chatted with the driver and said ‘I want to be an engine driver’ to which the driver replied, ‘Aye, but you’re nobbut a lad.’ Alan said firmly, ‘When I grow up I mean’ (p141). His career path took a different turn, of course, like so many others who wanted to be train drivers or astronauts or even cowboys!

He lovingly describes many amusing anecdotes, sometimes against himself, and is never malicious. At one time the family had an upright piano in the parlour and Alan determined to learn to drive a car with the instrument’s help. He needed a walking stick and a flowerpot. He turned the flowerpot upside down and stuck the stick in the drainage hole in the pot; this served as the gear-lever. Then he’d use the three foot-pedals of the piano as the accelerator, clutch and brake. Until his father had enough of Alan’s revving sounds and suggested ‘Put the car in the garage and go to bed’ (p249).

‘Impressing my parents was more important to me than almost anything else. It seemed a way of repaying their confidence and the energy and effort they’d put into bringing us up during those tough years after the war’ (p325).

‘Since being a lad, I’ve had a love affair with horses – in paint and in the flesh. The works of George Stubbs and Sir Alfred Munnings thrill me like no other. Dogs command affection, cats command attention, but horses command respect’ (p271) [In his 2008 novel Folly he actually has Munnings as a character].

‘Collecting things was something we all felt driven to do; there was some kind of security in ownership of a collection, some kind of status. In leaner weeks we’d search through the dustbins at the back of the bus garage... We’d pull out cigarette packets and tear off the front and back covers so that each became a crude playing card. With these we’d play snap, and feel as rich as a king when we scooped a whole pile of them’ (p292).

‘My pocket money amounted to one shilling. It never changed for years, it seemed. It didn’t buy much, but most of it went in Woolworths on seeds, or construction kits...’ (p295).

‘The fact that I failed my eleven-plus came as no surprise to anybody, least of all me... I can recall that feeling now – the feeling of trying to knit fog. I caught up in the years that followed; but at the age of eleven it is no consolation to know that you are a late developer’ (p300).

‘I should have been better at science, bearing in mind my future, but Miss Sutcliffe – known as “the Improper Fraction” (top-heavy) – was a loud woman who frightened the life out of me. When she bawled at you, “Acids must be respected!” you felt obliged to scatter the vinegar on to your fish and chips with particular care’ (p304).

These snippets don’t do the book justice. Alan Titchmarsh has a sharp eye for detail – also evinced in his novels – and here provides the reader with vivid recall of people and times long gone, but not forgotten. Here he shows us the various local characters and teachers who became powerful influences in his early life.

Also included are photographs of his family, which many of us can relate to in the style and composition. Plus the author has inserted several line drawings to illustrate certain events and things.

Nostalgia may not be what it used to be, but it’s here in this book in spades!