My wonderful fiction publisher Cumulus have written this blurb (blush, blush) about The Birdcage, my first novel, coming out next Spring. I hope it intrigues you! (Can I write that? My old English master hated that usage — sorry, Frank…And I’m not sure what he would have made of the book!)
The Birdcage, by Clive Aslet
Salonika, 1915: a city more than half-Jewish, which – until a few months ago – was one of the jewels in the Ottoman crown. After a brief Bulgarian interlude, it is now suddenly Greek. A city nominally neutral, but teeming with French, British and Serbian armies, to hold it against the Austro-German forces to the north, with their Bulgarian allies. A city seething with intrigue, where café society pursues its way unperturbed, within earshot of the fighting, where the foreign soldiery seeks its pleasures among the shabby streets, and where the native inhabitants are eager to make from them what money they can. This is The Birdcage – named after the miles of tangled barbed wire which separate the city from the fighting to the north. It is the Casablanca of WWI.
In Clive Aslet’s sparkling fiction debut we see how this kaleidoscope of nations, cultures and political ambitions shifts and re-forms around a group of English men and women, blown here by many different winds: the military; young nurses from a Women’s hospital which has been shipped out to tend the wounded; seasoned soldiers, pulled back from Gallipoli; mysterious intelligence officers. The young art student – talented but uncouth – who is surprised into love of Elsie, a doughty young nurse; Isabel, the slightly aging beauty of the Surrey Hills, who finds she is not immune to the glamour of a Serbian officer who has nothing to lose and little to offer; ‘Simple’ Simon, who pursues spying and antiquarian studies with equal enthusiasm; the Kite Balloonists, who must trade off a sort of historical chivalry towards the enemy against the need to fight and survive in this world so foreign to them.
Welcome to a world of perilous ascents – and abrupt descents – from military kite balloons; of madcap journeys by mule, by Wolseley motor car and by foot over the grim northern mountains, where the opposing armies are locked in combat; of U-boats lurking in the waters off the city; of sinister and dangerous Enver Effendi, who says he is Turkish – or is it Bulgarian? Or Even Venezuelan? What is his game? Where is all the petrol disappearing to? The breathless ride is just beginning, in a tale where the spirit of P G Wodehouse meets the world of Biggles and R C Sherriff, and the sense of time and place is uniquely vivid and real.
After that, I should think the county record office would be the first port of call. That would give background on the village (if that is your interest); there might be publications of local relevance, and the staff could tell you what else might be available locally. I enjoyed looking through the register of Lydford school.
There are a couple of good websites for family history — i.e. ancestry.co.uk and findmypast.co.uk. I seem to remember that they give you a few months of trial period for free, although after that they charge. However they have some indispensable records. Ancestry in particular is linked to the National Archives at Kew, having digitised some of the records. The census records are key. They will help you place the men in the village.
In terms of researching their careers under arms, I would suggest going first to the National Archives at Kew. Their catalogue is online. You can look up the records of individual servicemen where they exist (some records were destroyed in the Blitz). Soldiers were entitled to various medals, depending on when and where they fought; the medal cards which list who was due what are available online. Silver war badges or medals were awarded to soldiers who were wounded.
The Imperial War Museum and National Army Museums are invaluable. The IWM in particular has a vast archive, of every conceivable kind of record – letters, diaries, official papers, photographs, voice recordings, film, memorabilia. It is digitising some of those for the First World War in time for the centenary I believe.
This is Paramythia, in northern Greece. It means the valley of the legends, and to the Ancient Greeks it was the limit of the known world. Nearby flows the river Kalamos, which was to them the river Styx across which the dead were ferried on their way to Hades. It’s a broad valley, high up and surrounded by mountains – a good place for the British to hide an airfield when they were attacking the Italians, attempting to invade Greece from Albania, which is not far away.
211 Squadron came here, bombing ports along the Albanian coast. They had previously been in the Western Desert, again fighting the Italians; and it was because the Duce had done badly there that he turned to Greece. But despite his boasts, his army was miserably equipped and poorly led, and the Greeks drove it back. Then the Germans decided to do he job properly, and came down through the Balkans. Between them, the Greeks and the RAF could muster around 80 planes, whereas the Luftwaffe had 700. It was an unequal contest.
I took the ferry from Corfu to Igoumenitsa, and from there a taxi. There’s a new road, sliced out of the mountainside, and it’s safer than the old one, with its corkscrew bends. When 211 Squadron were here, local people travelled by donkey. There were so few buildings in the valley that the airstrip could have been put anywhere that was flat. That’s not quite the case now; a few villas have been built in the valley and the village of Paramythia has spruced itself up. A café has some pictures of the old days on its tables and walls. The taxi driver took some advice about lunch, and we ate something with a friend of his; extra beers were pressed on us, plates of specialities that we hadn’t ordered brought out. But after the courtesies had been observed, we were able to follow his little car for a few kilometres out of the village. This was where the airfield had been, he told us. A road cut across it, and a new villa with orange trees in front of it stood to one side. There was nothing to be seen but reeds, a bit of scrub; the local people no longer have to wring every last ounce of profit from the land. It was, though, from here that Richard Herbert – Herby as he was known to his fellow officers and crew – took off on Easter Day 1941.
Richard is one of three Herbert brothers whose names are on the war memorial at Lydford in Devon. All joined the RAF, all were killed. Richard was slight, pale, with neatly brilliantined hair. He was 21, quiet but popular in the mess. He loved flying and it was difficult to keep him on the ground. In September 1940, he and his crew had had a near brush with death when they flew a Blenheim Mk 1 bomber out to the Western Desert. They hit a thunderstorm and only just succeeded in limping into Malta to refuel. But he’d recovered his sang froid by the time they flew over the pyramids, observing laconically: ‘terrible waste of stone, what?’
That Easter Day, April 13, 1941, the squadron was attempting to halt the German advance, as troops poured through the Monastir Gap near Florina. One Blenheim was sent off on a reconnaissance mission. There were six other functional Blenheims, one of them being Richard’s. He had already flown twice that day. Usually the aircraft were escorted by Hurricane fighters. This time the Hurricanes weren’t there. Over Florina, the Blenheims were spotted by German Messerschmitt 109s, better armed and more manoeuvrable than the Blenheims. 211 squadron formed up into a defensive box and headed west, into the sun – it gave their gunners an advantage. But it wasn’t enough. Every one was shot down. Richard’s plane came down over woods near Lake Prespa. Airmen were seen jumping, but it was already too near the ground for their parachutes to open.
There is little enough to see at Paramythia. But I still feel that coming here is a pilgrimage.
More about my book War Memorial here.
Stop me if I’m boring you, but here is the second in my series of extracts from my book Inside House of Lords. It was published in 1998, on the eve of the last paroxysm of reform, and so in some respects has a nostalgic cast. But I like the quotation from Lady Thatcher.
‘Nobility is a graceful ornament to the civil order. It is the Corinthiancapital of polished society.’