Sunday, February 09, 2014

Edith Pargeter. She Went to War (1942)

     Edith Pargeter. She Went to War (1942) Republished in 1989, this book is interesting both as a record of the first couple of years of WW2, when Britain suffered a series of defeats and Hitler conquered most of Europe, and as a character-portrait. These were the years of the Blitz, of Dunkirk, the Peloponnesian defeat, and Britain’s slow fumbling towards military skill and efficiency. It’s quite likely that if the Japanese hadn’t provoked the US into war, Britain would have had to make terms with the Reich.
     Catherine Saxon decides to join up as a WREN because she realises she’s fed up with the complacency of her upper-middle class social group, who take it for granted that other people will fight their wars for them. Her assignment is teletype operator, and she’s soon promoted to command her watch. She writes letters to Nick, an old family friend, maybe her uncle, a paralysed WW1 vet. The letters trace her growing political awareness, which increases when she meets a private, Tom Lyddon, who has fought in the Spanish Civil War. He is killed, but he writes to her from Greece and Crete, and Cyprus. The letters deal more with Catherine’s thoughts and actions than with details of the war itself. She does give vivid descriptions of what it feels like to be in a bomb shelter during a raid, descriptions that made me uncomfortable enough that I had to read them in small doses.
     Tom’s letters give enough details of the Greek campaign to show that in 1941 the generals and admirals were still unable to understand the importance of mobile armour and air cover, the lack of which led directly to the conquest of Greece. The fact that this conquest was welcomed by a large proportion of Greeks is not mentioned, possible because at the time it was not generally understood that Hitler’s racist doctrines were welcomed in many parts of Europe, and for that matter on the Allied side weren’t as vigorously opposed as they should have been. Both Canada and the US rejected many Jewish refugees, for example.
     Catherine slowly becomes aware of how the class system interferes with the war effort itself, as it did in WW1, when the largely aristocratic officer class found it difficult to adapt their strategic and tactical thinking to the new technologies of war. She’s determined to work for real change both during and after the war, a change that did in fact come when the British elected a Labour government instead of reinstalling Churchill and his Conservatives, and embraced the welfare state. It is not insignificant that those who oppose the notion that the state has social responsibilities refer to the “nanny state”. This phrase resonates with undertones of petty tyranny for a certain class of people, but is nearly meaningless to most of the rest of us.
     Pargeter, who later made a name (Ellis Peters) and small fortune for herself as the creator of Cadfael, is good at giving us a portrait of Catherine. She’s a complex person, who at the age 26 has begun to think for herself, and redefine her relationship with the world around her. Her undying love for Syddon is perhaps too much a convention of love romance, but her strength of character makes it plausible if not exactly believable. The politics are a little less convincing, because we read them with hindsight, and so much of what seemed certain or reasonable at the time has turned out to be deceptive and illusory. You can’t go home again, said Tom Wolfe; you can never again be the innocent and naive person you were. Knowledge and experience impede the imagination even as they liberate it. In any case, Pargeter used her own experiences, but without research into her life I don’t know to what extent Catherine reflects her own attitudes. *** (2010)

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