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Legion Magazine – September/October 2000 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – September/October 2000

Often people say their savour of a great story is marred when they see a movie based on it. Recently I came to a parallel conclusion about reading a biography of an author whose book or books I have treasured. The case in point was a most fulsome biography by Elspeth Cameron, Earle Birney: A Life, published in 1994 shortly before Birney’s death.

For 50 years my favourite novel about WW II has been Turvey: A Military Picaresque. First published in 1949 in Toronto, it was written by Earle Birney and it sold well in Canada but was defined by British and American publishers as “too Canadian” for their markets.

Birney, born in 1904, was pushing 40 when he volunteered for the Canadian army in 1941, so as his biographer put it: “He was too old to send into active combat, so he had no sense of putting his life on the line.”

After a busy period in radically minded political activity as a young man, Birney was a professor of English by the time of his enlistment. He was not well known, but he was being heralded as a rising poet for a book of his poems that had earned the praise of Canada’s literary set.

Birney was a zealot for physical fitness and he was determined to gain rank in the army. A commission came quickly after he joined a burgeoning new endeavour for the Canadian Army, a system of personnel selection for military roles based on tests for intelligence and aptitudes. By war’s end, Birney was a major and had had over two years in the United Kingdom, and in the Low Countries, most of it engaged at a fairly high level with issues in personnel selection and winnowing. He was also writing poetry, for example, The Road To Nijmegen, inspired by a jeep ride from Ghent, Belgium, to the front in late 1944.

Later Birney described the bleakness of the landscape, the wreckage of war and the reigning mood of grim despair about an end to the war that he found along The Maple Leaf Route to Nijmegen, saying: “What often sustained soldiers in such times and moods was the sudden casual remembrance of the face of a friend, of someone you knew was more good than bad; it made you think there might possibly be some hope for the human race. So I write this to just such a friend…to someone out in the real living world from someone who felt in danger of being buried alive in a dead world.”

As a delighted reader of Turvey, I knew from reviews that its author had been engaged in personnel work in the war but knew little about the details until I took up Cameron’s volume. Birney was very busy in the development of the selection process that had been deployed and in thorough use in the army by late 1942. He made his close friends aware he was getting material for a work of fiction. As Cameron puts it: “The long reports he typed about recruits and their life histories were deliberately intended as rough drafts for fiction he would write later.”

Cameron also writes that recruits “were interviewed for the double purpose of getting information about their history and qualifications and gauging their temperamental fitness to cope with various aspects of army life, from the tedium of repetitive tasks to the increasingly well-understood stress of what was called combat reaction—a polite term for the nervous breakdowns often suffered by soldiers undergoing the hours of war firsthand in a mental state dominated by the ever present threat of pain or death.”

And Birney’s material piled up for the Turvey tale—Turvey as in Topsy-Turvey. Before he was invalided home from the United Kingdom in 1945, shortly to a return to teaching English, ultimately for decades at the University of British Columbia, Birney had copious notes from talking, as he said: “… intimately and privately for anywhere from one to five hours with 700 young Canadians, and I know there is such an animal, subtly different than anyone else under the common sun. And he is not a bad type of human on the whole—naive, but not gullible, buoyant, but not trivial, with plenty of brotherhood under the individualistic conditioning, and lots of guts and stability, and above all a fine avoidance of the contrasting excesses of English and American temperament, without perhaps the strong colours of either… everyone with a story, but a story that can only be told of a Canadian.”

Cameron’s chapters on Birney in the army make one appreciate the solid basis of Turvey in its author’s wartime work. Turvey, the hapless survivor, a screw-it-up protagonist, was ever trying and always failing to reach his chosen regiment, the Rocky Mountain Rangers “in the field”. In pursuing this aim our unsophisticated innocent from the western hill country is the means of unfolding a rollicking, episodical satire on Canadian parochialism and shibboleths, reminding me of the classic soldier’s tale of the Great War, The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek, a Czech draftee into the Austrian army.

The problem, or better, the dross for me in knowing so much about Turvey’s creator comes from attributes of his that depressed or irritated me, including his Casanova-class pursuit of both sex and admiration for his poetry, of which he had much of each in his seven decades as an adult. He never seemed without lovers and worshippers by the twos and threes and more, even in wartime Britain or Belgium where as he phrased it he was “a personnel trouble-shooter …sorting out morons and neurotics, malingerers and asthmatics, among the clean corn.”

I realize this may seem petty and picky, but what annoyed me most in this biography was how seldom Birney focused his clever, analytical mind and superb imagination on that crucial minority of soldiers—those at the war’s “sharp end” and its killing, wounding and breakdowns.

The conclusion of his novel seemed to reject the efficacy of the “M” tests—as I recall their tag—because Turvey became so familiar with the test forms that at discharge, he was tested for aptitudes for civvy jobs and scored so high he was labelled as university material.

Birney lived until 1995, a mesmerizing womanizer almost to the end, but also a vigorous intellectual prompter of students galore, the author of hundreds of poems, many essays and stories and literally thousands of letters to lovers, relatives, colleagues, editors and publishers. He was a genius with high gifts for writing, teaching and loving.
Now I turn to a far different story and cast than Birney’s and Turvey’s. It’s called It’s A Long Way To Glasgow, by Janusz Karpinski, with a chapter by Wieslaw Karpinski. A hardcover book of 182 pages with maps and photos, it was published in 1997 and is distributed by Vera Karpinski, 468 6th A St., Hanover, ON N4N 1E8.

This true tale of the escape by a Polish family from wartime Russia has some parallels with Aleksander Topolski’s book Without Vodka, which I praised in a review here two years ago. Topolski, now retired to the Gatineau hills, was 16 in 1939 when the Russians swept into his home region in eastern Poland whereas the younger Karpinski was only 13 at the time. The latter’s family was caught up by the Soviet police, the father jailed and the mother and two of the children routed deep into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as labourers. In time, after Hitler marched against Stalin, the Karpinskis were freed from sequestration and began to search through the U.S.S.R. for the Polish units that were to be formed to fight under Allied command. Eventually, the Karpinski’s, like Alek Topolski, got to Iran, then to the U.K, and eventually to Canada.

It was decades after the war before the several Karpinskis who made it to the West found out their father was one of the Polish officers massacred at Katyn. The principal author merely “wanted the reader to get a true picture of what a young boy saw on a journey through the unreal world of Stalin’s Soviet Union during the first two and a half years of WW II.” He does this, but he hasn’t the remembrance of detail or the fascination for people in hard straits which distinguishes Topolski’s wartime odyssey.

I would also like to draw readers’ attention to a paperback edition of historian John Keegan’s book The First World War. Published by Vintage Books, Random House, New York, the book was first issued in 1998. It has been a deserved best-seller in both the United Kingdom and the U.S. for its readable prose and the bold, hindsight interpretations that Keegan brings to bear on the links between WW I and WW II, particularly those drawn from the long Cold War aftermath.

This is now the handiest book on my shelves on the Great War in terms of both data and analysis. It has 474 pages, many maps, photos, a long reading list and an excellent index.

Oddly, I had just finished it when a new paperback history arrived which in its Canadian way complements Keegan’s work. Distant Thunder: Canada’s Citizen Soldiers On The Western Front was written by Joyce M. Kennedy, a retired professor of journalism, a former flying officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and daughter of a man who served overseas in WW I as a gunner in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The father left a graphic diary of his service, and excerpts from it personalize and stitch together the daughter’s vivid, often homey story of what Canadian volunteers accomplished. The author is a sister of Hap Kennedy, a retired medical doctor who lives at Cumberland, Ont., and who flew fighters for the RCAF in WW II. Hap Kennedy is also the author of Black Crosses Off My Wingtip.

Distant Thunder is in an unusually attractive paperback form, well-illustrated and clearly organized, as professional in itself as the readable text. Although it was published by Sunflower University Press, Manhattan, Kansas, it is distributed in Canada by Espirt de Corps Books, 204–1066 Somerset St., W., Ottawa, ON K1Y 4T3.

Today, Doris V. Carter is a retired nurse in her 80s. She lives in Ottawa and has written Never Leave Your Head Uncovered: A Canadian Nursing Sister In World War Two. It’s paperback of 155 pages with a modicum of photos, published by Potlatch Publications Ltd, 30 Berry Hill, Waterdown, ON L0R 2H4.

Carter served from 1940 to 1945 with Canadian military hospitals in the United Kingdom, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Belgium and finally home to more nursing and a long career as a health nurse in the Ottawa school system. There’s nothing stuffy or preachy about Doris Carter, and in the medical corps although she made the basic bows to the strict discipline often exercised so strictly by many matrons she kept as much of her individualism as she could. She sketches the duties and drudgeries of military nursing and both the camaraderie of shared sadness and joys with patients and colleagues. She’s written an unpretentious, but remarkable slice of a profession in busy and grim times.