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September 7, 2012 10:37 pm
A Very English Hero: The Making of Frank Thompson, by Peter J Conradi, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99, 432 pages
Peter J Conradi first encountered Frank Thompson when writing a life of Iris Murdoch, whose friend he had been at Oxford. Thompson died in the second world war, aged 23; for years afterwards he haunted Murdoch, “who believed that had he survived she and Frank would have married”. His memory is evoked in many of her novels.
Frank Thompson was also the brother of Edward Palmer Thompson, one of the most influential historians of the 20th century. Throughout his life, EP Thompson “revered his beloved elder brother as a touchstone, an emotional and moral reference point in all his writing and political thinking”.
This connection to a great novelist and a greater historian is merely the pretext for A Very English Hero, in which Conradi presents a sensitive portrait of a gifted man who died too early. William Frank Thompson was born in Darjeeling in August 1920, descended on both sides from progressive missionaries. His mother, Theodosia, was the daughter and granddaughter of American Presbyterians working in the Levant. His father, Edward, spent many years teaching at a Methodist college in Bengal, during which time he befriended the poet Rabindranath Tagore.
In 1923 Edward Thompson returned to England to take up a lectureship at an Oxford college. He had already published a book on Tagore and several volumes of poetry; novels and works of history were to follow. Meanwhile, Frank won scholarships to Winchester school and to New College, Oxford. Between school and university he took himself off to Greece. Already, Frank was seeing himself in a Byronic mode – as a poet who would take his stand on behalf of oppressed peoples and nations. It helped that he had a most un-English gift for languages, becoming fluent in Greek, German and Russian.
In an endearing exaggeration, he wrote to a friend that “my father is the best-loved Englishman in India, my father and grandfather the best-loved foreign folk in Syria”. He continued: “My dearest wish is to carve a similar niche for myself in Greece, Jugoslavia or Bulgaria – or even the vast territories of old Muscovy.”
At Oxford, Frank became a communist, as did many other intelligent young men and women at the time (he was introduced to the party by Murdoch). Joining in 1939, when fascism menaced the smaller countries of the continent, made him a broad-minded European as opposed to a Little Englander. Yet Frank was heterodox and idealistic, not a “tough apparatchik”. His father alerted him to the darker sides of Soviet Russia. “The only things that have any value today,” Frank once remarked, “are love and courage.” When his brother made jeering remarks about a Harrovian in his regiment, he answered that “it is a mistake to hate people because of their class”.
From his school days, Frank was, also in the family tradition, writing poetry. A poem addressed to Murdoch in July 1939 began: “If you hear my name among those killed/Say you have lost a friend, half man, half boy.” (She replied: “I liked the poem because it was like you: simplicity tinged with melodrama. You’re a darling!”)
Frank enlisted shortly after the war broke out. Between 1939 and 1943 he served in Egypt, Libya, Iran, Sicily, Malta and Iraq. Early in 1944 he was parachuted into Serbia, from where he made contact with Bulgarian partisans. In May he crossed the border into Bulgaria with his colleagues; he was captured by soldiers and shot. Three-quarters of a century later, he remains a hero in Bulgaria, placed on a pedestal by communist and post-communist regimes and by many ordinary folk as well.
This is a quite wonderful book, marked by elegant prose and sharp historical judgments (sample: “in England you cannot be Methodist and upper class at the same time”). I suffer from second world war fatigue myself; this was temporarily banished by Conradi, who manages to illuminate in a fresh and exciting manner a perhaps excessively studied conflict.
Ramachandra Guha’s book on Gandhi’s early years will be published by Penguin in 2013
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