The Scars of War

[This article published by The Guardian, June 2003]

I was born towards the end of the second world war and therefore remember none of it, but Manchester, close to my home, bore lasting scars from the Blitz. Every childhood trip into town took us through the bombed inner suburbs, with their acres of rubble, piles of charred bricks and floor joists, the golden-rod and rosebay willow-herb clustering in the ruined hollows.

Gradually, the authorities cleared away the mess and replaced it with postwar housing, but I continued to be haunted by vivid imaginings of what might have gone on during those traumatic winter nights of 1941. My parents subscribed to a part-work: Walter Hutchinson’s Pictorial History of the War. I soaked up what information I could squeeze from its censored pages, relishing the pluck the British had shown in adversity.

Like my parents, I became a Churchillian. When television came along in the 1950s, it showed many documentaries about the war. All of them contained clips of Churchill, and recordings of his speeches. Even today, those Churchill cadences about finest hours and beaches can make the hairs on my arms stand up.

But Hutchinson described an unsolved mystery, a famous one. As the Blitz ended, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, flew to Britain with a peace proposal. But no one ever discussed it with him, and Churchill had him locked up. Why? Say it again: the deputy head of state of the enemy nation, here on a mission of peace. Locked up for the rest of his life? I was 10 or 11 when I learned about this. I never stopped wondering what had been going on.

We wonder still, because information about Hess remains secret. He died in Spandau prison in 1987, having been incarcerated for 40 years. Little is known about the reasons for Churchill’s actions, because all the official versions contain ambiguities or omissions. Even Hess’s identity has been questioned: a theory about an impostor standing in for him has never quite been argued away.

Our modern world is very different from Churchill’s vision of a 1,000-year empire admiring Britain for standing up to Hitler. Churchill’s authority is still pervasive, though. He wrote one of the best and most influential of all second world war histories. How many of the assumptions we make about the events of the war are traceable back to him?

These are the questions novelists love to raise. When I started work on The Separation, I found myself applying modern scepticism to common assumptions. For instance, we know now, beyond dispute, that many of Churchill’s most famous speeches were recorded by an actor, Norman Shelley. The “Hess” who flew to Britain might have been a double. It’s not beyond the bounds of probability that Churchill occasionally sent out a double of himself to wave a hat and a cigar at the public. Did he then use his double for anything else?

More seriously, what about appeasement? We have despised the British appeasers since 1940, which is exactly when Churchill took power. Was there more to pre-war British foreign policy than the ordinary histories now tell us? And what was in that Hess peace plan? Did it propose something that to Churchill was irresistible but unspeakable, all in one package? Something that might have excited his feelings of guilt about his role in the abdication, a few years earlier?

Rich pickings for a novelist, indeed. I’m often told I write “slipstream” fiction, a fairly recent coinage. Although I seek to avoid categorisation of my books, slipstream can be a useful identifier. It is the literature of strangeness, but not necessarily in its subjects. Slipstream is about attitude, or a different way of inquiring into the familiar. It includes rather than categorises – while not being magic realism, or fantasy, or science fiction, slipstream literature includes many examples of these.

It can also be without any fantastic element at all. Most readers who connect with slipstream know it when they see it, even if they don’t recognise the name. In literature you might include Angela Carter, Steve Erickson, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, JG Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, some of John Fowles. In films, Memento, Being John Malkovich and Intacto are recent examples of pure slipstream.

But a book about the second world war? As I say, slipstream is more a way of approaching a subject than a subject in itself. I still want to know what really happened to Hess, but since it’s all but impossible to find out for sure, a speculative novel is a way of keeping the subject open.