War brought back to life

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Books Reviews - Re­view by Su­san Swar­brick

Tran­scrip­tion BY KATE ATKIN­SON (Dou­ble­day, £20)

WAR is filled with dark deeds, its sprawl­ing ten­ta­cles never quite re­lin­quish­ing their grip, not even when peace­time ar­rives herald­ing a false sense of free­dom.

No-one knows this bet­ter than Juliet Arm­strong who in 1940, aged just 18, finds her­self thrust into the murky world of es­pi­onage when she is re­cruited to an MI5 depart­ment tasked with mon­i­tor­ing fas­cist sym­pa­this­ers in Lon­don.

Ini­tially she finds it rather dull. Her war ef­fort com­prises lit­tle more than typ­ing up tran­scripts of con­ver­sa­tions be­tween a group known as the fifth col­umn – the “home­grown evil” – who meet at a flat in Dol­phin Square, Pim­lico, un­aware that MI5 is lis­ten­ing through the wall.

Rather than root­ing them out, the plan is to let them flour­ish but “within a walled gar­den from which they can­not es­cape and spread their evil seed”. Their leader is God­frey Toby, an MI5 of­fi­cer pos­ing as an agent of the Ger­man govern­ment.

Kate Atkin­son as­tutely cap­tures the essence of the so­called “Phoney War”, an eight­month pe­riod at the be­gin­ning of the Sec­ond World War fu­elled by para­noia and sus­pi­cion be­fore the hor­rors of con­flict – Dunkirk, the Bat­tle of Bri­tain and the Blitz – blighted so many lives.

This was a time when peo­ple would re­port their neigh­bours for own­ing a “Ger­man” Shep­herd dog or for hang­ing nap­pies on a wash­ing line in a way that “sug­gested sem­a­phore” – sig­nalling to the en­emy.

Juliet is hand-picked by Pere­grine “Perry” Gib­bons to be his “girl” in the clan­des­tine op­er­a­tion, an in­fu­ri­at­ing hy­brid role of right-hand woman/ dogs­body who, when not shack­led to a type­writer, could be re­lied upon to make tea for the men, whisk around a duster and empty ash­trays.

As Perry tells her: “We can­not choose our weapons in a time of war, Miss Arm­strong.” But then the te­dium un­ex­pect­edly gives way to some­thing al­to­gether more thrilling. Juliet is drafted in to in­fil­trate the Right Club, an an­ti­semitic and fas­cist group drawn from the Es­tab­lish­ment.

“She was to be a spy. At last. Her nom de guerre was to be ‘Iris Carter-Jenk­ins,’” writes Atkin­son. Juliet’s mis­sion is to be­friend the in­flu­en­tial Mrs Scaife and get her hands on the cov­eted “Red Book” which lists the club’s mem­ber­ship, pep­pered with the names of the great and the good. Down the rab­bit hole Juliet plunges into the realms of mas­quer­ade and de­cep­tion. Se­crets fall away like the seem­ingly never-end­ing lay­ers of an onion. There is tri­umph and tragedy: a job well done and yet strewn with a com­edy of er­rors from which the col­lat­eral dam­age will for­ever

haunt her. Ten years af­ter the war we find Juliet work­ing at the BBC’s Broad­cast­ing House as a pro­ducer in Schools hav­ing cut her teeth on Chil­dren’s Hour. On the sur­face, she ap­pears as breezy and ef­fi­cient as ever but a chance sight­ing of God­frey Toby on the street is akin to a psy­cho­log­i­cal ham­mer-blow.

In that mo­ment, the ghosts of Juliet’s past emerge from the shad­ows in rapid pro­ces­sion, in­hab­it­ing a con­fus­ing hin­ter­land – much like the Phoney War – be­tween re­al­ity and imag­i­na­tion.

Tran­scrip­tion is joy­ful, heartrend­ing, shrewdly ob­served and qui­etly funny. It slowly sim­mers and then daz­zles, not least with the kind of de­li­cious twists and turns that we have come to ex­pect from Atkin­son as the sto­ry­line gal­lops to­ward a bit­ter­sweet cli­max.

The Sec­ond World War has be­come a favourite ter­ri­tory for the author. Her pre­vi­ous award­win­ning nov­els Life Af­ter Life and A God In Ru­ins were both set in this pe­riod, and it is an era on which she writes au­thor­i­ta­tively, deftly blend­ing fiction with ac­tual events.

In her notes, Atkin­son writes that the ge­n­e­sis of Tran­scrip­tion arose from one of the pe­ri­odic re­leases by MI5 to the Na­tional Archives in which the long-spec­u­lated iden­tity of a wartime spy “Jack King” was fi­nally re­vealed as Eric Roberts, an out­wardly or­di­nary and unas­sum­ing bank clerk.

She waded through hun­dreds of pages of tran­scripts from Roberts’s meet­ings with fas­cist sym­pa­this­ers and it was this, says Atkin­son, that formed the bones of the char­ac­ter God­frey Toby.

Yet, it posed a quandary. Roberts was, af­ter all, a fig­ure who had been alive in re­cent mem­ory and with liv­ing de­scen­dants. Atkin­son neatly side­steps this dilemma by bring­ing the fic­tional Juliet to the fore, cre­at­ing a strong fe­male lead and giv­ing a voice to the many face­less, unsung heroes of war.

The tran­scripts, says the author, be­gan to take over her imag­i­na­tion. While there is no record in the public do­main of who typed them, it felt to Atkin­son that it was the work of mainly one per­son (a “girl”, ob­vi­ously).

“As I spent a pe­riod of my life as an au­dio typ­ist, I felt an odd affin­ity with this anony­mous typ­ist, es­pe­cially when, on the odd oc­ca­sion, her own per­son­al­ity breaks sud­denly through,” she writes.

That led to the cre­ation of her “girl” Juliet, a bright, like­able young woman whose ide­al­ism, joie de vivre and guile­less­ness col­lide with ever-shift­ing un­der­cur­rents to cat­a­clysmic ef­fect.

Tran­scrip­tion is a pow­er­ful re­minder that in times of war, the no­tion of win­ners or losers is of­ten folly and the lines are far more blurred than we care to imag­ine.

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