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.

 

A Volatile Summer of Reading

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This Summer I will be taking part in 20 Books of Summer.  A great idea from Cathy@746 Books to review twenty books over the summer period except my 20 will be more like 10.  I realise there are not quite ten books in the photo above!   My other three titles are not yet available to be photographed but will be within the next two days.   A Big Thank You to Sister Rune for trekking to the Hay Festival to make these purchases for me.  The remaining three titles are:

Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World by Steinunn Siguroardottir

Coleridge, The Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels. Adam Nicholson

River Voices: Extraordinary Stories from the Wye by Marsha O’Mahony

 

 

Inconvenient truths

monochrome photo of woman sitting on floor
Photo by Emre Kuzu on Pexels.com

Caroline Criado Perez. Invisble Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men(Chatto & Windus, 2019

Women are used to queuing when they go out.  Says Caroline Criado Perez in her book “Invisible Women” Exposing Data Bias in a World designed for men”.  She meant for the loo of course.  Any lady who has been to the theatre or opera or ballet or cinema in London or any city is used to queuing round the block in the interval, while the men pop in and out of their unencumbered spaces and have plenty of time to rock up at the bar for a nice cooling drink.   Gender neutral only makes things worse.  Because guess what.  Women need cubicles and can’t use urinals.  Men don’t – and can.    Sorry if that came as a bit of a shock,  Barbican management.

Apparently the Barbican hadn’t thought of that when they casually announced that all their loos – simply by changing to the sign on the door – were now Gender Neutral.  Tada!! Fabulous.  How many politically correct boxes that must have ticked with no effort or cost whatsoever.

But then, shock horror.  It was discovered that the ‘gender neutral’ urinals were only being used by men who were of course also entitled – should they choose – to use the cubicles.  All the Barbican had succeeded in doing is  increase provision for men and exclude women.   Needless to say, no sanitary bins had been provided in the so called ‘gender neutral’ urinals.   The supposedly equal provision of loos had been done with men in mind.  A male dominated management team, you think?

Another anecdote – if it can be called that – related by Perez is when a senior member of Google Sheryl Sandberg became pregnant and her feet swelled up, it came to her notice that she was having to walk miles across the car park because there was no provision for pregnant women to park nearer the main entrance. When she approached Google’s founder Sergei Brin about reserved parking for pregnant women he said he had never thought of it but that arrangements would be made.   No wonder he had never thought of it.  He is a man and will never be pregnant nor have to consider policy for those that will and are unless it is spelled out to him in words of one syllable.   It had never presumably occurred to Sandberg either until it happened that she found herself unable to struggle across the car park.

And no,  this is not a mere inconvenience if you’ll excuse the pun, easily rectified.  It is part of a cultural and economic exclusion which even in the 21stcentury is still rampant across all cultures.  One of the most important things to say about the gender data gap, says the author is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate.  Quite the opposite it is a way of thinking that has been around for millennia, and is therefore a kind of not thinking.

 

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe

 

 

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe

Adélaïde Bon, trans. Ruth Diver

This is a tough read but beautifully written and poetic if such a thing is possible on dealing with the subject of child rape.  The author was raped at age 9 by a man who is finally brought to justice on the chance of a random DNA sample – more than two decades later.  By this time the author has married and had a son.  But  she painfully charts her mental and physical collapse – and her efforts to recover, the therapies she undergoes,  the Court case. Traumatic memory is such that the part of the brain that deals with autobiographical memory (the prefontal cortex) cannot access the trauma which has been buried away by the amygdala that can only be treated by those with specialist knowledge of PTSD relating to sexual violence,  all too often poorly recognised or understood.

‘How ugly ignorance is when it is concealed under learned airs,’ says the author.  And she has good reason to know.

One of the most poignant parts of the book is the list of names, not unlike a eulogy,  of those women (all victims of this same man)  who could not bring themselves to attend Court. Who risk criminal penalties for failing to answer a subpoena rather than be forced to recount in public over and over again lurid details of what happened to them when they were six, seven, eight or nine.   They are part of what is described as the ‘black number’ of victims of sexual violence. An estimated 90% of the victims of rape do not report it, and this number is even higher for child victims