news from the Real Press

So, what is Secret History then?

‘WP198 at Ndola’, a charcoal drawing by Jonathan Stockley for the cover of Bunkeya.
https://www.jonathanstockleyart.com

What is ‘Secret History’? A good way to think about it is that Secret History sits at the crossroads where counter-factual fiction, faction, conspiracy theory and historical fiction all meet. Got it?

Hmmm. Perhaps not quite.

The first thing to say is that Secret History is fiction; Secret History books are novels. Clearly, they must deal with the past, but also with something that somebody wants to keep quiet about.

Who? What do they know? Why are they covering it up?

Welcome to the modern world. Secret History is the sort of stuff that sells newspapers, because at its core it deals with real people, real times, a wealth of established facts, and a skeleton in the cupboard that fits the facts… It’s just that nobody has ever rattled those bones before. 

Back to the crossroads and the similarity to conspiracy theory novels. Naturally, the more apocalyptic the secret (and the higher up it goes), the better we like it. Secret History implies a direct line from the past (the history) to where we are today. So, in Secret History there isn’t a branching point, as there would be in counter-factual fiction. Don’t expect President Kennedy’s life to be saved on the operating table, or Rudolf Hess to address parliament. Nor is Secret History trying to tell you what is fundamentally a story of ancient Rome, regency romance, boys up chimneys, Nelson’s navy, or wars of conquering and liberation… Nor is Secret History the same as ‘faction’ which, although it uses story-telling techniques to tell a true story, that’s the point – faction is fact, not fiction.

The point of Secret History is the secret. It has to stay under wraps.

Of course, there is a similarity with some of those fiction genres above. At the centre of the story, we find a fictional protagonist. Our hero is normally so insignificant in comparison to the powerful (and often amoral) people who got him into his situation that, in theory, he can’t influence the outcome. But even if he doesn’t… even if the powerful people get away with all the lies and stonewalling that keep the secret safe, then it doesn’t matter. The reader sees those people for what they are.

However, this is where it gets tricky for the writer, because some of his characters are real people… and some of them might still be alive! You’ve all seen that bit just after a book’s title page where publishers try to avoid getting sued – ‘any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.’

Well, in Secret History that can’t be totally true. Okay – you might consider calling your Prime Minister ‘Toby Bligh’, but why bother? Secret History is an established genre of fiction in which you can’t divorce known events from real people without wrecking the credibility of your story. Maybe that’s simply the price of fame or high office. And anyway, if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck… 

Finally, when you’ve reached the last page of a good Secret History novel, and said to yourself: “I find that bit about General Eisenhower a bit far-fetched,” what happens? You google it, and maybe you not only find out that it’s true, but it’s interesting too. So, if a Secret History novel merely entertains you, that would be enough. But occasionally, if it fosters in someone a deeper interest in times past, that would be a great thing.

Secret History – it’s where the verifiable facts run out and, in the gap before they all pick up again, something hush-hush happens that nobody knew about before. It’s a secret that doesn’t change anything, but it certainly might explain something. And as long as we don’t destroy all credibility by letting something happen that clearly couldn’t have, (such as Queen Victoria saying: “Yeah, that’s really – like – cool, man”) hopefully the reader is left wondering whether it really could have happened, because everything else seems to be true.

A P Handley’s first Secret History in the Danny Rook series – you can get it here or on kindle here

And remember… It’s fiction. Okay?

Why are we arguing again about appeasement and Munich crisis?

This post first appeared on the Aspects of History blog

Why are we arguing again about appeasement, the Munich crisis and Neville Chamberlain, UK prime minister from 1937-40?

The immediate hook is the film of the Robert Harris novel, Munich: The edge of war – and its obvious agenda to rescue Chamberlain for history.

You will remember, especially if you have seen the film – which has been available on Netflix from last weekend – that Chamberlain’s 1938 Munich agreement handed over the northern region and defences of Czechoslovakia to Hitler without firing a shot.

The film itself is beautifully acted by an Anglo-German cast, and there is a brilliant performance by Jeremy Irons as an avuncular, inspirational Chamberlain.

I’m sure than Chamberlain was inspirational, in his way. But I am far less sure that we are right to regard Munich as tribute to what the historian AJP Taylor called “a triumph for all was best and most enlightened in British life”.

I have been fascinated by Munich because I have a family connection to those events – my great-aunt, Shiela Grant-Duff was Observer correspondent in Prague in the late 1930s and was engaged at the time in an increasingly desperate debate with Adam von Trott – who features in the film as the original of Paul von Hartmann, the anti-Nazi co-hero.

The other reason I have an interest is that I wrote a book about Munich (Munich 1938), with the context included – especially the plot to depose Hitler by his own generals the moment he had ordered an advance into Czechoslovakia, which Chamberlain so fatally undermined.

Two arguments have emerged that imply some kind of rethink might be necessary. First, that Hitler bitterly regretted not going to war in 1938 – though, as we saw in the film, he probably would have been deposed and shot if he had.

Second, was Chamberlain’s justification for getting Hitler to sign his paper promising never to go to war with Britain again: that the whole world would then see that he had broken his word.

But Chamberlain explained this to Lord Dunglass, his young PPS (later Alec Douglas-Home) on the plane home – not, as the film shows, to justify himself to Hugh Legat beforehand. It was actually a justification after the fact.

The problem was not that Chamberlain took no notice of the German army plot to depose Hitler. He never actually got that kind of approach in Munich. Partly because Adam von Trott was still living in China and still involved in his passionate debate with my great-aunt, which she described in her book The Parting of Ways.

Nor could he have done so at that stage anyway, as Irons-as-Chamberlain explains.

Yet Foreign Office officials in London and Paris had in fact already met representatives of the opposition, some months before. There was also a feeling among the British that they could not trust people who would betray their own government.

It wasn’t until 1943, when Dietrich Bonheoffer met George Bell, the bishop of Chichester, secretly in Stockholm, that the opposition took the British into their confidence by listing some of the conspirators – so many of the German army top brass. But even then, Anthony Eden would not, or could not, row back from the British position that they would insist on unconditional surrender, come what may.

The UK government definitely let down the German opposition to Hitler, and not just in 1938. But the real problem was what was done to Czechoslovakia in Munich.

The film makes it clear that the Czechs were not included in the four-partite conference. That was unfortunately only half true. In fact, there were Czech government representatives in the same building, but virtually under house arrest.

After the signing ceremony, Chamberlain and the French PM Daladier went to browbeat them into submission. “Can we not at least be heard before we are judged?” asked the Czech diplomat Hubert Masarik. The British and French shook their heads sadly.

The real problem with Munich was whether it is ever right to guarantee peace by forcing a smaller nation to accept invasion without fighting back.

It is true that war was avoided for a year – which gave both sides the chance to re-arm – but the Czechs had a sophisticated army which gave up without a fight, and 400 of their tanks (plus the factories that made them) became part of the Wehrmacht. When the British were forced back to Dunkirk 18 months later, they were pursued mainly by former Czech armour.

It wasn’t really the weakness of Czechoslovakia but its strength that so scared Chamberlain and his colleagues – the fear that, if the Czechs defended themselves, then we and the French would be drawn in (and the Russians).

That is why, after the agreement was signed, the British and French ambassadors to Prague roused President Beneš from his sleep to tell him that, if war broke out, not only would neither we nor the French intervene, but they would hold the Czechs responsible for any catastrophe which followed.

The following day, Beneš capitulated.

Ironically, Daladier recognised the truth – which is why he called his cheering Parisian crowd ‘morons’. Chamberlain was appearing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to acknowledge his own cheers at the same time.

But why are we having this debate now? (see what I wrote in Prospect, for example). Strangely, the divisions are along traditional lines, with the Timesthe very heart of appeasement in the 1930s – backing Chamberlain now.

Luckily, I’m not the only one defending the Churchillian version of events – the Financial Times has now weighed in against the appeasers.

The divisions in UK politics were resolved after Dunkirk by the sacking of most of the senior positions in the nation. And as Labour leader a generation later, Michael Foot opened his 1983 election campaign by accusing the Tories of still being the ‘guilty men of Munich’, a faint memory of his Guilty Men book about Munich in 1940.

Perhaps the establishment has yet to get over their wounds from 1940 – and they want traditional Conservatism back. Just as the current standard-bearer seems to be in difficulties.

Was it really a coincidence that, the day before the film came out, David Davis used the same words to Boris Johnson that Leopold Amery did to Chamberlain in the no-confidence debate after the Norwegian campaign?

‘An excellent job’

Review of Roger Lancaster’s book After the War is Over, by Ian Channing (first appeared in QSO magazine).

After the War is Over
You can buy a copy here

Roger Lancaster has made a number of contributions to QSO over the years and his account of his time as a radio inspector in New Zealand featured prominently in The Long Silence Falls Part 1. Now he has written and published  an autobiography of his early life entitled After the War is Over and has asked me to review this book for QSO. The majority of the book concerns Roger’s childhood and his experiences of growing in a rural Warwickshire village during and after the Second World War. 

For anyone who lived through the same period, such as myself, Roger does a brilliant job of evoking those times. Rationing, outside toilets, no running hot or cold water, home deliveries of bread, milk and Corona are all there awakening memories of similar experiences. One element of the book that did impress me was Roger’s remarkable and presumably accurate memories of every person in the village and their relationships to one another. As someone who grew up in a similar environment I am very impressed as I can’t even remember the names of the people who lived next door.

From an early age Roger was interested in radio, building receivers from old bits and pieces of war surplus equipment. His local vicar sent off for a copy of the Marconi brochure and Roger was hooked (he still has the brochure today).

I suspect for ROA members, the real interest in Roger’s tale will start with his time at Southampton University where he studied for his Second Class PMG. As Roger explains the University had formerly been a polytechnic so he was at university enjoying all that that entails but was not studying for a degree. Having successfully completed his Second Class Roger went on to get his First Class and Radar Maintenance Certificates.

In 1956, he applied to his first choice P&O only to be told that there were no vacancies. So Roger applied to IMR, was accepted and appointed to the Cunard liner Saxonia as Third RO. Roger reports that his time on the Saxonia was one of the worst experiences of his life with sea sickness and hostility from his fellow ROs just some of the things he had to contend with. Roger promptly resigned from IMR and went back to his first love P&O where he received a warm welcome and an appointment to his first ship-the troopship Empire Fowey! P&O turned out to be everything that the Saxonia was not so a happy future beckoned.

Roger has done an excellent job with this book which is warmly recommended.

Ian Channing

New book and pamphlet by Edgar Cahn and Chris Gray

David Boyle writesWe are delighted to announce that the Real Press (based in Sussex UK) will be publishing a pamphlet and book by the legendary thinker, radical lawyer and social entrepreneurs Edgar Cahn and Chris Gray.

Cahn has an extraordinary record of innovation, dating back to the 1960s, including the US National Legal Services programme, the Antioch Law School, time banks – now in 38 counties – and co-production, which he made a vital and practical element in real public service reform.

Dr Chris Gray is a former director of Time Banks USA and the author of The Tribal Moment In American Politics: The Struggle for Native American Sovereignty (2015). The book makes visible “an historic process of constitutional dimensions whereby a nation founded on liberty and equality violated its own values in its treatment of the first Americans.” She and Edgar have been married for twenty years.

Our plan is to publish their latest work, an explanation of social isolation – naming it as the “other pandemic”, just as dangerous and expensive to solve – and setting it in the context of his other practical thinking.

It will be published as a pamphlet jointly with the New Weather Institute (the Real Press has published all their pamphlets since they launched as the first mutual thinktank in 2016). Then it will be published as a book, in a longer version including other works and examples of where their understanding of co-production has been working effectively (in early summer 2021).

It will be available via www.therealpress.co.uk and via Amazon (US and UK) as a paperback and ebook. Plus other outlets too.

Get your own print from Simon Zec’s latest book!

After two bland and uneventful years, our poetry editor Simon Zec finally managed to find something interesting to write about for his second poetry collection, available here.

In the Downtime is a reaction to both the world and his personal life. Trying to find the cracks in the darkness where the light can shine through.

Simon has striven to make the book beautiful as well as thoughtful and together with two talented artists (Benita Hibbert and Rob Winterson) they have created two original artworks to go with the books.

These are available to purchase for £15 each, but we are making available the first 20 prints of both pieces as a special deal combined with the book for a special price of £28.99 (plus p&p).

The book and the prints will also be signed by the creators too.

In the Downtime is now available from here. Also available from Steyning Bookshop, and also from JE Books in Hull, on Amazon and on kindle. You can also get £3 off by buying both of his poetry books together..

Lesley Yarranton at rest, after publication of Saving Munich

Lesley Yarranton

Lesley may look like an Englishwoman in Gloucestershire – which is what she is – but she also speaks fluent German, ran her own press agency in Berlin when the wall came down, and in Saving Munich 1945, she has written, researched and chased down one of the remaining great untold stories of the Second World War.