Posts Tagged ‘michael frayn’

Here at Finds Towers, as we celebrate our February reissue of Secret Classrooms: An Untold Story of the Cold War by Geoffrey Elliot and Harold Shukman, we have been delighted to receive a communiqué from one of Faber’s foremost authors, Michael Frayn, who himself plays a part in Secret Classrooms’ remarkable narrative. Michael writes:

Getting the British to speak other languages is about as hard as persuading pigs to fly. Getting some five thousand of us airborne in Russian during our National Service was a spectacular feat of mass levitation. This book is the story of how it was done…

One could hardly read that much and not wish to know more… Michael Leapman, by way of his original review of Secret Classrooms for the Independent, takes up the story:

As tension in Europe rose in the late 1940s, the authorities came to realise that hardly anyone in Britain could speak the language of our potential enemies. How could we engage in sophisticated spy missions if we had nobody who could read the names of the stations on the Moscow Metro? And if it did come to war, how could we interrogate those prisoners unsporting enough not to speak English? The answer lay in National Service… Why not cream off the brainiest [conscripts], especially those with an aptitude for languages, and subject them to an intensive programme aimed at making them fluent in Russian in little more than a year? A joint services school for linguists (JSSL) was established in Coulsdon, in Surrey. It moved to Bodmin, in Cornwall, and finally to Crail, in East Fife. When word of the scheme reached students, they were quick to recognise that this would be a “cushy number” compared with confronting the Queen’s enemies in Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya or Suez…

The JSSL kursanty was a remarkable cohort, and JSSL alumni – among them Sir Peter Hall, Alan Bennett, Sir Martin Gilbert, D. M. Thomas, and the aforementioned Michael Frayn, who edited the school magazine Samovar – seem to look back on the experience with considerable affection. Geoffrey Elliot and Harold Shukman have their own tales to tell, of course, and when I asked them both to reflect on what the JSSL experience had meant to them in their subsequent lives and careers, they were kind enough to provide me with the following reminiscences:

HAROLD SHUKMAN: “In 1954, having recently graduated as an interpreter from the RAF Russian Course, I was a first-year student at Nottingham University and, for reasons never revealed to me, I was elected by the student body to join a delegation – the first since the war – to visit the Soviet Union. All 20 British universities – minus Oxford and Cambridge which were not affiliated to the NUS at the time – sent a delegate, and as the sole Russian speaker I was made the interpreter. Our hosts were the Anti-Fascist Committee for Soviet Youth and our purpose was to learn about Soviet higher education. We still had rationing in the UK, but it seemed to us that the Russians had too little in their food shops even to ration. Yet we were feasted three times a day, with chilled caviar even at breakfast and huge suppers after the nightly opera, ballet, concert or (perhaps for me alone) Chekhov play at the Arts Theatre. Stalin had been dead only a year and Westerners, apart from diplomats, were hardly ever seen in Russia. Wherever we went, as soon as I was heard to utter a word in Russian, a crowd would surround me and gawk. Thanks to JSSL.”

GEOFFREY ELLIOT: “‘Old men forget’ – names, car keys, shopping lists. But much of the Russian drummed into me in those Secret Classrooms is still hard-wired in my memory. I used the language for a while as a translator and Reuters radio monitor, my dial set to Radio Moscow, from which in 1962 I snatched the first news that Khrushchev had ordered his missile-laden ships to turn back from Cuba. Later on, as a banker, I found numbers more important than languages, and yet visiting Siberia in 2004 I surprised myself (and the journalist in question) by giving a long interview in Russian to a Yakutsk newspaper about life in Bermuda. At The Wallace Collection last year I got talking to a trio of Russian football commentators, over to report a Chelsea match. (Hard to imagine a visiting Sky Sports contingent touring the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow with the same informed enthusiasm). ‘You speak good Russian’, one of them told me, ‘but your vocabulary and accent are like an émigré who has been out of the country for 30 years.’ I took it as a compliment, not to me but to the discipline and passion of those who taught us half a century ago.”

Secret Classrooms, quite rightly hailed by the Spectator as ‘vivacious’ and ‘highly entertaining’ is available for order here.


Read Full Post »

The classic novel by Jean Rhys, whose definitive biography is now in Finds

It’s my pleasure to unveil another strong, diverse and enticing selection of titles newly reissued in Finds as of this month. The nominees for your reading pleasure are:


A Spirit Rises – Sylvia Townsend Warner
Our second offering of stories from this brilliant and versatile author, much admired by (inter alia) Sarah Waters and Ali Smith. Dovegreyreader also offers a recent appreciation here.

A Test to Destruction – Henry Williamson
The eighth of the fifteen titles in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight sequence, the numbers of whose readers in Finds appear to be growing daily…

The Bath Detective – Christopher Lee
The first in a thriller trilogy by the acclaimed novelist, historian and broadcaster whose own website is here.

Mark Only – T. F. Powys
The latest in our restoration to print of extraordinary works by the more austere of the prodigious Powys boys (see previous post here)…


Jean Rhys: Life and Work – Carole Angier
The definitive study of the melancholy author whose glorious final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, confirmed Al Alvarez in calling her “the best living English novelist.”

The Embattled Mountain – F. W. D. Deakin
Bill Deakin’s scintillating account of his WWII mission into Yugoslavia to locate and assess Tito and his Partisans. Our earlier post on Deakin is here, and Mark Wheeler’s tremendous New Introduction here.

Secret Classrooms: An Untold Story of the Cold War – Geoffrey Elliott & Harold Shukman
A gem of an insight into how certain bright young scholars of the 1950s (among them A. Bennett, M. Frayn and DM Thomas) sidestepped National Service so as to be instructed in Russian for the betterment of the Cold War effort. Fine Spectator review here, and more to come on this blog…

Enid Bagnold – Anne Sebba
Our latest from Anne Sebba, a marvellous study of the brilliant and controversial woman who wrote National Velvet and The Chalk Garden. See Anne’s personal author site here.

Lloyd George: From Peace to War, 1912-1916 – John Grigg
We continue to reissue Grigg’s magisterial sequence, hailed by the Telegraph as overall “one of the most brilliant biographies of recent times”, this third volume the winner of the Wolfson Prize.

East End My Cradle – Willy Goldman
An unforgettable, affectionate evocation of 1930s London life from an author hailed in his time as “a sort of Proust of the Whitechapel Road.” Longer appreciation to follow on this blog v soon…

The Coming of the Barbarians: A Story of Western Settlement in Japan 1853-1870 – Pat Barr
An evocative and apt title for Pat Barr’s indispensable account of the opening to Japan first forged by US Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry – a story that inspired, inter alia, Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures

Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History – Roy Foster
An inspired collection of thematically-linked essays praised in the LRB by Colm Toibin as ‘important and original’. (Toibin also hailed Foster as ‘the most brilliant and courageous Irish historian of his generation’, and his fascinating essay is fully available here.)

How the English Made the Alps – Jim Ring
An exciting anecdotal study of how 19th-century English poets, Christians and natural scientists sought out the highest peaks of Alpine glory, driven – as E.S. Turner put it in his LRB review – by “lust for adventure, scientific curiosity, vanity, national pride, the need for spiritual uplift, the geological urge to disprove Genesis, the expansion of railways, the tourist mania, the deathly pilgrimages of the tubercular and, finally, the primitive and irresistible joys of the piste…” Phew!

Read Full Post »