Wednesday, August 16, 2017

One great war story they won't make into a film

One of the many advantages of never having taken part in a war is you can have such uncomplicated feelings about it.

Vera Atkins: A Life In Secrets by Sarah Helm is the very complicated story of the often cold, always inscrutable woman responsible for sending volunteers into German-occupied France for SOE in order to fulfil Churchill's slightly Trumpian threat to "set Europe ablaze".

One hundred of the four hundred people she sent fell into German ends. At the end of the war she went into the chaos of "liberated" Europe to find out precisely what had happened to them. This quest took her into German prisons, former Gestapo headquarters in Paris and the sites of concentration camps. What was driving her? The need to do the right thing by the young women she had, unknowingly, sent to their deaths? Or did she want to ensure that she was the person whose version of the truth was the one that found its way into the official record?

And who exactly was she, this lady with the cut glass accent and the profoundly English sense of propriety? As Sarah Helm's book gradually reveals Vera's whole life was something of a lie. Thanks to the accident of her birth it had to be.

When I was a quarter of the way in I couldn't believe that this book hadn't been made into a film and that I hadn't already seen Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett turn up on some chat show sofa talking about what a great opportunity this was to play "a very strong woman."

By the time I got to the end I was no longer wondering. The fates the agents met had been the kind not even Aaron Sorkin could have turned into inspiring drama. The qualities that made Vera Atkins effective were the same ones that made her unpopular.

Although her book is full of examples of unimaginable courage Sarah Helm leaves the purple prose in the drawer and refrains from describing anyone as a heroine. Maybe that's why it feels like the truth.

1 comment:

  1. Your post impelled me to read this as it reminded me that I had seen some comments on it a few years ago linking her with Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk near to where we live. Yes you are correct it is a quite incredible story with an author nearly as obsessive as her subject. It perhaps gives a better account of the realities of war than a great many other retellings. It also perhaps highlight truths that we all should be aware of in these times when nationalism and migration are used in such emotive terms. Thank you.