Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
The WavellRoom team’s thoughts are with the family and friends of Captain Sir Tom Moore, veteran and inspirational role model, following his death last week. This review was written before his passing, but it is hoped that it will pay tribute to his legacy and his book.
Available here from Penguin Random House.
This is the autobiography of the 100-year old man who caught the public imagination with fund-raising walks round his garden – when UK deaths from COVID were peaking at almost a thousand a day – raising many millions of pounds for the NHS and for Charity.
The book starts with a description of his family origins and early life in Keighley, Yorkshire, and of his developing interest in motorcycles. It moves to describe the effect of the outbreak of war on this close community, and his involvement with the local defence volunteers.
His receipt of a Conscription letter in April 1940, his basic training and his early service are covered. His first encounter with a Commissioned Officer, a Second Lieutenant who was also a Peer of the Realm, is rather poignantly described, and the overall chapter structured to convey the author’s undercurrent of ambition. This culminates in his transfer to Officer Training, and first posting to India.
The book describes the involvement of his Unit in the Battle for Donbaik in the Burma Campaign, as well as his being diagnosed with Dengue Fever. The book moves to describe a further Burma deployment and active involvement with a Tank regiment in the Battle of the Admin Box in February 1944; notably being given cyanide pills to take in case of capture by the Japanese. A return home in a Shorts Sunderland Flying Boat, and more work on Churchill tanks, is followed by demobilisation in June 1946.
The next part of the book focusses on his developing personal life, and the difficult end to his first marriage. His second marriage however was happier, as were recent years with his daughters. The style of writing here provides a good contrast with the previous sections.
Visits to Nepal and back to India are described, followed by details of a fall and fractured hip, and developing gratitude for NHS care. The onset of the COVID lockdown is described, and the sense he had that he was safe, but with a focus on what others were doing to mitigate the crisis.
The start of his garden laps follows, along with a ‘Just Giving’ webpage and press release. His appearance on local radio and television are covered, alongside his fund raising which raised 33 million pounds for charities. A song was recorded, calls from famous figures were received (though the Prime Minister had to call back) and a Knighthood followed.
The autobiography itself is interesting and provides some useful historical insights. It is emotionally insightful, but somewhat anecdotal, with authority figures cast in a stereotyped way. It leaves you with a positive sense of the author; reading a biography can sometimes dissipate the magic, but not this time.
The odd thing was that, beyond the practical fund-raising, his activity achieved such massive resonance. It seemed to buoy and stabilise millions, and this book provides a deeper understanding of the antecedents and circumstances of this.
It reflects the draw-down of a sense of practical and emotional support at a critical moment in the epidemic: the collective memory of the actions and hardships of that generation in turn cemented our sense of support during the present crisis – and we were indeed grateful for that. More widely, it also indicates that the value of Defence aid to our Civil Authorities runs, of course, much deeper than the simply practical.
This effect seems to operate at both individual and collective level. Just as we as individuals do tend to remember those who have stood by us during difficult times, so it is also in our collective unconscious which can cascade down the years, and act as a stabiliser and support.
Such stabilisation seems to reduce the tendency to flip into, or allow the emergence of, an individual and collective configuration, characterised by panic and paranoia. With overt self-interest, isolation, hoarding and a sense of danger at every corner: hysteria.
It is no coincidence that a eulogy from a former British Prime Minister for a former US President may also have tapped into this: ”in the midst of hysteria one great heart at least remained sane and jocular.” 1
As the country now also steps off once again, adagio ma non troppo, to remember, refocus and rebuild, this book provides a useful insight into a remarkable episode in our Islands’ history. Beneficial, timely, catalytic, focussed, relevant, leveraged, determined, cost-effective and drawing on deep historical resonance: soft power indeed.