Sorry Mr. Fleming, WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy was in fact a lady

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (Virago Press, 2019)

 

 

An unscheduled No.4 from my 10 books of Summer  but a worthy addition to the list.

Hall’s wartime service is described  by Purnell as “a Homeric tale of adventure, action and seemingly unfathomable courage”,  her service even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale  – or any other scale much.  Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.

Virginia Hall experienced many rejections in her life but she never allowed these to stand in her way.  Repeatedly refused work in the diplomatic corps in the US (she was a woman for goodness sake who had ever heard of such a thing) Hall nevertheless in 1940 (aged 34)  travelled to France to volunteer as  an ambulance driver.  Later she went to England where she got picked up by Churchill’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed to carry out disruptive work behind enemy lines –  and sent to France to help coordinate the resistance movement.

In 1940 the SOE itself was not the fait accompli that, with the wisdom of hindsight and Sebastian Faulks’ novels, we now assume it to be.  Purnell explains:

“Advertising for recruits for such subversive work was obviously out of the question – the government never mentioned SOE in public and if asked they would deny its very existence.  Traditionally, British Secret Services had drawn from a shallow pool of posh boys raised on imperial adventure stories, but this regard for breeding over intellect was scarcely a match for the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich.”

Virginia Hall, however, was.

Subtitled The Untold Story of Virginia Hall WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy, Purnell gives us the story of this courageous  lady whose exploits are not dissimilar although in many ways even more extreme than those of war reporter Marie Colvin who was killed in Iraq in 2012.

Reporter for a US newspaper was the  alias that Hall first used when she went to France where she had been tasked with coordinating and building up the French resistance, starting in Lyon when she fought to stay one step ahead of the notorious butcher Klaus Barbie.  This ‘staying one step ahead’ at one stage involved Hall having to  travel to Perpignan and  cross the Pyrenees in midwinter in order to reach Spain which was, at least officially, neutral.    This unimaginable feat – with a prosthesis – this  treacherous crossing that had felled plenty of fit and able young men:

“sometimes escape parties would come across a frozen corpse, occasionally in an upright position, gazing forward with a fixed stare.”

was undertaken by Hall with the slimmest chance of survival,  along with an unfriendly guide and two other men,  even as the Wehrmacht combed the town behind her with sniffer dogs.

Despite the fact that the internet age was still half a century in the future, the germans were never short of information or the ability to trap spies from other nations, yet Virginia eluded them, even though they knew about her, including a description,  even though she limped and had a prosthesis.  Even thought they put her on their most wanted list.  She seemed to have an uncanny ability not only to adopt different physical disguises but different demeanours too.

The book is hugely readable and fascinating.  But most of all it made me feel ashamed that I had barely heard of this lady.  Yet which of us has not heard of Douglas Bader? In 1956, barely a decade after WW2 ended, a film was produced with Kenneth More in the title role playing Bader.   If Hall had been a man it is unlikely we would have had to wait so long to hear her story.  Purnell’s book is more than a biography it is the setting straight of a record that has long needed setting straight. I urge you to read it.

 

Van Gogh obscured by his own mythology: At Eternity’s Gate. Dir Julian Schnabel

Perhaps Jesus made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.  This line, spoken to a  priest charged with assessing Vincent for possible release from the asylum in Saint Remy where he has been interred after a latest bout of his illness,  seems to me central to the director’s vision.   With more than a century of art market hindsight, it’s an easy enough line,   although I do not know for sure if the artist ever said it.  It feels unrealistically self-confident.

VanGogh

Reading Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, intellect and erudition shine through, certainly financial worries and an inability to find love, but self confidence? No. I wouldn’t say so.

There is more than one reference to Christ in the film, including pictorial ones.  Jesus himself, Van Gogh tells the priest, wasn’t famous until forty years after his death. Well maybe but that’s not a line guaranteed to get you out of the asylum in France in 1890.

The artist himself wrote:

‘’…on no account would I choose the life of a martyr.  For I have always striven for something other than heroism, which I do not have in me…’

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

Has Van Gogh become obscured by his own mythology? And does it matter?    This clearly is a concern to Ronald de Leeuw in his 1990 introduction to the Penguin edition of Vincent’s letters to his brother, Theo.   It is worth pointing out here that the Editor of the letters was at the time of the book’s appearance Director of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam – so hardly a slouch in terms of authority.    Both de Leeuw and the translator of the edition are clear that Vincent took his own life.

Yet film makers beg to differ.  He was shot they claim, by a local thug.    In this respect At Eternity’s Gatefollows on from the excellent and exquisitely rendered artists film,  Loving Vincent(2017) which also pushed the shot-by-a-local called René Secrétan angle.  Whereas scholarly thinking is that he committed suicide.

 

VanGogh2

It’s hard not to be fascinated …

by the life stories of artists and this one in particular.  After all,  Van Gogh painted his way from unknown son of a preacher man to incipient global icon in a period of roughly 11 years,  making the decision to become an artist (a late start for a  painter with no particular formal training in 1879) and dying aged 37 from gunshot wounds in 1891.

Possibly no other artist’s life  – or death – seems quite so intriguing to us or quite so surrounded with mysteries. And film loves a mystery.   But there is scholarly theory that these mysteries are not mysteries at all but are add ons to our popular image of the ultimate tortured and impoverished artist.  I do not claim that there is no substance in these ideas – the ear chopping episode (mercifully done off screen in Schnabel’s film) is sufficient evidence of a mind and body in torment.   But to make a shortcut between that and genius, and to claim little else for the man?  That I don’t accept.  Also the fact that the artist had self- harmed so spectacularly makes a greater case for his subsequent suicide, rather than a lesser one.

Van Gogh rarely discusses his illness in his letters to his brother perhaps not wishing to make him anxious but occasionally he does make reference to his illness.

When I came out of hospital with good old Roulin, I fancied there had been nothing wrong with me, it was only afterwards I felt I’d been ill.  Well, that’s only to be expected.  I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, like a Greek oracle on his tripod. 

But when I am in a delirium and everything I love so much is in turmoil, then I don’t mistake that for reality and I don’t play the false prophet.

(Letter Vincent Van Gogh to Theo Van Gogh, 3rdFebruary 1889)

One aspect of Schnabel’s film which seems on the surface intriguing, but which is in fact inaccurate,  is the matter of the missing ledger book.  An empty ledger book was given by Madame Ginoux to Van Gogh for him to use as a drawing book and which the film claims was returned to her (although without her knowledge) complete with more than 60 of his drawings.  Heavens!  What would that be worth now?   The ledger, the film says, mysteriously disappeared and was only rediscovered in 2016.

The first thing that occurred to me when I saw this was  why? If the artist was reviled in his lifetime certainly by the local populace of Arles, and if so few of his paintings sold, why would someone go to the trouble of stealing a ledger book to all intents and purposes considered worthless at the time? And where was it all those years? How exciting!  The answer however – as answers often are – is more prosaic.

Martin Bailey, in an article dated 29thMarch 2018 for The Art Newspaper, writes that the book was not authentic.

Schnabel told The Times that it is “irrelevant” whether the drawings are genuine or not. He has seen them and says “they were pretty damn good”. This comes as a surprise from an artist, since the sketches are weakly drawn, derivative works. The Arles Sketchbook is not authentic, as the Van Gogh Museum determined after an exhaustive examination. (And the sketches were not discovered “in 2016”, since I had been shown some of them in 2010.)

Our need for the tortured artist as sacrificial victim should not overtake historical accuracy in biography. For the film maker it seems, it is not enough that Vincent should have taken his own life but that someone needed to do it for him.  Perhaps so that we may be yet more convinced of the rightness of his vision. Perhaps genius can only exist against a backdrop of ignorance, so that it may shine ever more brightly? I don’t know.      But here is the artist’s own voice on the subject:

“… I for one would blame myself if I didn’t try to make pictures that give rise to serious reflection in those who think seriously about art and life.”

 

Ring of Bright Water, An epitaph

It has taken me a long time to read Gavin Maxwell’s  Ring of Bright Water.  I remember the book coming out.  I even remember the film with Virginia McKenna and the infernal song! Now that I’ve read it the thing that fascinates me most – more than the story about otters more even than its Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity –  is the poetry of the writing.  I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of the new nature writing but Maxwell’s writing feels different.   As if he writes from the inside out, rather than from outside looking in as most do.

I didn’t even know that the title of the work is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems.  Ignorant? Probably.  I thought I could dispel my ignorance by reading a biography.    There is only one that I could find -that by Douglas Botting – read that I told myself and all will be revealed.    Well, no.  What is revealed is that Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland; a wartime instructor in the  Special Operations Executive, Guards Officer, adventurer, traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond) there is no shortage of material here. The  authorised biography  is by Douglas Botting who explains that other would-be biographers of Maxwell came up against the twin obstacles of family and literary estate,  but that his own application was granted because he had known Maxwell personally during the last years of the author’s life. 20060630-Hampton Court -DSC_0337

It is clear both from Maxwell’s own work and from Botting’s biography,  that this fully paid up member of the hero club was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.  These aspects of his life being more acutely realised in the work than human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful.  At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for a trip or adventure – there usually seems to be the odd old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.

What is not revealed because of course no-one knows is where the writing comes from.    Ironic also that the overwhelming success of Maxwell’s book and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved.

It is almost as if the difficulties of the life he chose in remote Camusfeàrna – with no made up road no electricity one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop – were a metaphor for his own life struggles.  These books were an elegy for a way of life which was vanishing even mid-20th century during the author’s lifetime; but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has taken place,  they now feel like an epitaph for a failed conservation movement.