28. Halifax – The Life of Lord Halifax by The Earl of Birkenhead (Hamish Hamilton 1965; 1st edition)
Halifax was Foreign Secretary in Neville Chamberlain’s government when WW2 broke out. He was a leading appeaser. In 1940, when Chamberlain resigned, the succession to prime ministership was between Halifax and Churchill. Later, Churchill packed Halifax off to Washington D.C. as British Ambassador. Birkenhead’s biography of Halifax is long and dull, describing a tall and dull politician who was a high churchman and an aristocrat and who made little impact on history. Little impact, that is, apart from what he did during one crucial week. I therefore eagerly grabbed the stuff I needed for The Separation.
The first full-length biography in English, necessarily incomplete at the time of publication because so many papers had been removed to the Soviet Union, but nevertheless a brilliant and authoritative work. Hitler is not of great interest to me, nor does he feature more than peripherally in The Separation, but I felt I couldn’t write a book about WW2 without boning up on him. While I was still working, Ian Kershaw’s vast two-volume biography of Hitler appeared; I did consult it for a few details, but I still haven’t found the time or interest to read the whole thing. (A bibliophile note: I found my copy of Bullock’s book in a secondhand shop. It has a slightly tatty cover, as you might expect of an old book club edition. However, when I started reading the book I realized that it was, in effect, brand new. The pages were still adhering close together as they had been guillotined, the paper smelt fresh and clean. I never thought I’d associate Hitler with a pleasant sensual experience.)
30. Guy Gibson by Richard Morris (Viking, 1994; 1st edition).
This book is in effect where The Separation began. I found my copy in Waterstone’s in Eastbourne. Gibson was the RAF pilot who led the Dam Busters raid in 1943, a couple of months before I was born. From the Brickhill book (above) and also from the film directed by Michael Anderson in 1956, I gained an enduring image of Gibson as an authentic hero, a man of exceptional skill and bravery. He remains so for me today, even though the larger picture of the man reveals, of course, a flawed, complex and by no means entirely admirable character. When I read Morris’s biography it reminded me forcibly of the other RAF books that had so impressed me when I was at school. I went back and re-read some of them. After that, I began haunting the military history shelves in bookshops, gradually acquiring many of the titles listed here. The mounting evidence of the inherent wrongness of the RAF’s bombing of German cities began to depress me, and thoughts of a novel on the subject began to grow. Gibson is briefly mentioned in the novel (with my guess as to what might have happened to him had he survived the war), but the book is by no means ‘about’ him, any more than it is ‘about’ the other notable characters of the period who are mentioned in this list.
The man who looked like ChurchillThe definitive biography to date of Churchill is by Martin Gilbert, but I chose this much shorter one. While I was still reading it, my wife and I took the children to Churchill’s country house Chartwell, which is not far from where we live. I was standing in Churchill’s former study, browsing through a tall bookcase that occupied much of one wall. For some reason, my eye fell on a copy of Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope. No one was around so I reached up and ran my fingertips down its spine. The following day I was reading Pelling’s biography and on p.605 I read about Churchill as he was recovering from an illness: “… he began to improve. He was really relaxing – reading Trollope’s Phineas Finn, for instance.” He must have read that copy, that very copy. From such apparent coincidences the whole business of writing novels, carrying out research, and so on, are symbolically confirmed as being worth doing. The photograph is a rarely seen one from the time of the London Blitz, showing ‘Churchill’ carrying his cane in his left hand.