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HEROISM IN THE FACE OF DEATH

A Very English Hero: The Making of Frank Thompson By Peter J. Conradi, Bloomsbury, £18.99

Frank Thompson was the flower of his generation. He went to Winchester and then to New College, Oxford. He had the gift of picking up languages (he knew nine) and was a talented poet. Before he finished from Oxford, the Second World War had claimed him. He was dead in 1944, when he was only 23. Peter Conradi’s evocative book recreates the life and times of this extraordinary young man and the tragic end to his life.

Frank’s father, Edward J, was a Methodist missionary who had served in India, where he had become close friends with Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru. He went on to hold a position on Indian Studies in Oriel College, Oxford. He was the author of many books on India and of poetry. Frank’s younger brother, Edward, grew up to become one of the great historians of the second half of the 20th century. Both brothers joined the British communist party, and remained members; Frank till his death and Edward till the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

Frank was not born into luxury and affluence. But his prodigious talent took him to Winchester where he acquired some of the eccentricities of the English upper classes. He was as handsome as he was awkward. One of his schoolmates described him as having “ten thumbs, a brilliant mind, and an enormous heart.’’ In Oxford, he fell in love with Iris Murdoch although the evidence suggests that Frank died a virgin.

Conradi first came to know about Frank Thompson while researching the life of Murdoch. He was immediately drawn by Frank’s sunny personality and by the tragedy of his early death. This book grows out of the letters that Frank wrote to his family and friends, diaries he occasionally kept, poems that he wrote and the recollections of those who knew him. This is as close as we will ever get to Frank Thompson and his personality.

Like many young men entering adulthood in the late 1930s, Frank, as the war engulfed him, had a premonition of an early death. In a poem he wrote, speaking for many of his generation: “So we, whose life was all before us,/Our hearts with sunlight filled,/Left in the hills our books and flowers,/Descended and were killed.’’ In another, “If you should hear my name among those killed,/Say you have lost a friend, half man, half boy.’’ A June 1943 diary entry reads, “When I think I have reconciled myself to the idea of dying, is this merely the death-wish, a defeatist attitude to the complexities of life? Don’t think so. Normally I take a healthy pleasure in living.” When his brother joined the war, Frank warned him not to take unnecessary risks because their parents shouldn’t lose both their sons. As the eldest he had the right to die. Auden captured the mood when he wrote of the fear hovering over “the bright/And darkened lands of the earth/Obsessing our private lives.’’

This premonition cannot be understood or appreciated without its particular context. Conradi is especially good in depicting the times that made Frank and his attitudes. His attitudes were by no means atypical, except that Frank was exceptionally sensitive and expressive.

Here was a generation haunted by the rise of fascism and the prospect of war. They witnessed the civil war in Spain where some of their friends and contemporaries had died for the cause of liberty. They had seen with alarm sections of the ruling class flirting with Nazism and pursuing an illusory peace with Hitler. Some members of this generation found solace and solution in the communist party. Frank was one of them; Iris Murdoch recruited him. But Frank’s opposition to the fascist monster brooked no party line. He enlisted as soon as war was declared even though the communist party’s opposition to Hitler was still a couple of years away.

Frank’s war was spent largely in West Asia — in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iran and Iraq. He longed for action as if to fulfil his destiny. He was conscious all the time of the dehumanizing impact of war. The distinctions between officers and men embarrassed him. He made good friends in the war. No one among those who survived him had an ill word about him.

The Special Operations Executive was formed at Winston Churchill’s initiative as an irregular formation “to coordinate action against the enemy by means of subversion and sabotage, including propaganda.’’ Frank probably heard about it in early 1943 and lobbied hard to join it. His gift for languages made him a natural choice for covert operations behind enemy lines. After his recruitment and training, he was parachuted into Serbia in January 1944 from where he moved into Bulgaria to help the Partisans.

Frank was on Bulgarian territory for only a fortnight before he was captured and executed. Bulgarian Partisans had warned SOE about dropping agents into Bulgaria since the Partisans “lead a very mobile and insecure existence.’’ Frank went into Bulgaria on May 17, 1944, and he was soon dead after being tortured.

Officially, he was reported missing and then finally the family was informed that he was dead. Thompson senior died knowing that he had lost his eldest son but he had no idea of the circumstances of his son’s death. There was a veil of secrecy over the circumstances and it took Edward and his mother, Theo, many years to find out how Frank had died. It soon became clear, especially to Edward, that Frank and his operation had just been abandoned. Edward believed that his brother was one of the earliest victims of the Cold War. Frank Thompson in his afterlife is a national hero in Bulgaria.

Conradi provides a moving account as he pieces together Frank’s last days — hungry and desolate, tramping through hostile territory. Frank never gave up on his optimism. In 1943 he wrote to his parents, “there is a spirit abroad in Europe finer and braver than anything that tired continent has known for centuries and which cannot be withstood.’’ The horrors of war did not engender any hatred of human beings in him. He died as he had lived: a noble figure. He is best remembered with the lines to describe another heroic figure in another war: “A young Apollo, golden-haired,/Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,/Magnificently unprepared/For the long littleness of life.’’