War brought back to life
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.