“In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” ~ Winston Churchill
Kate Atkinson is such an incredible storyteller. She has gripped me from the very first page to the very last in her latest novel, Transcription.
I bought Transcription in WH Smith at Gatwick Airport on my way to Turin in October. I didn’t actually start reading it in Italy, (which was a good thing), as I’m not sure I would have been able to drag myself away from it to attend a health conference or marvel at the architecture, learn the history (and taste the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had in my life) in this beautiful Piedmont city, thanks to my friend, Maestro Alessandro Fornero.
Luckily it was filmed on a sunnier day than when we visited:
Going back to topic I do seem to have a penchant for spy thrillers, but this is not your typical high octane fodder. No, Transcription is an intense and highly personal story about a young and idealistic wanna-be spy, Juliet Armstrong, after she is recruited by the shadowy figure of Miles Merton into MI5 during the Second World War.
Recently bereaved after the loss of her mother, (she never knew her father), Juliet is alone in the world and ripe for their purposes.
Although initially slow burning, it’s intelligent and totally absorbing, with prose to die for (my writer’s radar was in admiration mode). So much about this novel felt authentic. I couldn’t tell fact from fiction, although the author openly states that much of it is fiction, albeit fiction based on facts she accessed from the National Archives. The dialogue is totally believable and well written.
The characters are slightly stereotypical to fit the historical slant of the story, but they do seem real. Perhaps because they’re distorted reflections and constructs of actual people. The plot grabs you unawares, as you get pulled in deeper and deeper to the secretive world of MI5’s work on home soil during the war.
The novel covers an aspect of the war I didn’t know anything about; the efforts of the intelligence community (itself riddled with double agents), to draw out and obfuscate the activities of home grown fascists and Nazi sympathisers.
The genius of Miss Juliet Armstrong’s character was that I could relate to her on many levels, despite her wartime era. The bulk of the action is set in 1940 and 1950, with a brief jump in the first and last chapter to 1981.
Juliet is just 18 when she is drafted into a clerical position within MI5. She proves herself capable and is soon promoted to a special operation run by Peregrine (‘call me Perry’) Gibbons.
Perry explain’s Juliet’s role in her new position; to type the transcripts of secret conversations recorded in an adjacent apartment (Dolphin House in London) between British spy Godfrey Toby and various pro Hitler fascists that pose a potential threat to the outcome of the war.
‘I presume you are familiar with the ins and outs of the fifth column, Miss Armstrong?’
‘Fascist sympathizers , supporters of the enemy sir?’
‘Exactly. Subversives. The Nordic League, the Link, the Right Club, the Imperial Fascist League, and a hundred smaller factions. The people who meet with Godfrey are mostly old British Union of Fascists members – Mosley’s lot. Our own home-grown evil, I’m sorry to say. And instead of rooting them out, the plan is to let them flourish – but within a walled garden from which they cannot escape and spread their evil seed.’
Juliet has a crush on Perry, her troubled boss, unaware that it can never be requited due to his suppressed homosexuality. He takes Juliet on various trips such as bird watching in the Chilterns and to the Roman ruins at Verulamium Park, where Juliet hopes she will be seduced, but in reality he is using her to protect his reputation. I felt that he did genuinely care for her, (just not in the way she wanted), and was a patriot dedicated to serving his country.
“Do not equate nationalism with patriotism,” Perry warned Juliet. “Nationalism is the first step on the road to Fascism.”
Her whole life is shaped by her experience and tragic events during the war, which has unfortunate ramifications for Juliet. At first, she feels like she is embarking on a big adventure, one that grows more exciting as the war progresses and the stakes are raised. But a decade on, Juliet has secrets of her own and the establishment that she once served is ever present.
The paradoxes of her personality put plenty of flesh on her young bones. She is smart but naïve, blithe yet (at times) terrified, plucky but also vulnerable. I loved her sense of humour, which made me chuckle in places and her propensity to quote Shakespeare to her colleagues, which mostly goes over their heads.
This book also filled me with a morose melancholy, not just for the impressionable orphaned Juliet, but for the awful situations she had to navigate in order to do her duty. Transcription is an engaging story that delves into the damage done by the misguided ideology of ordinary citizens as well as the moral implications of spy craft.
The novel makes no bones about the preponderance of anti-semitic sentiment in the UK as Hitler invaded Europe. It ran like an ugly seam throughout British society and was just as prevalent in the upper echelons of the aristocracy as it was in the middle and lower classes of the time.
Her main task, he explained, was to try to infiltrate the Right Club. ‘These people are a cut above our Bettys and Dollys,’ he said. ‘The Right Club is drawn from the establishment – a membership peppered with the names of the great and the good. Brocklehurst, Redesdale, the Duke of Wellington. There’s a book, supposedly- the Red Book – that lists them all. We would very much like to get our hands on it. A lot of its members have been swept up by defence regulation 18b, of course, but there are still many left – too many.’
Further on, after a key sting operation Perry tells Juliet, ‘Mosely’s been arrested as well.’
Sir Oswald Mosely, founder and leader of the British Union of Facists (BUF) married Diana (one of the notorious Mitford sisters), after the death of his first wife, (Lady Cynthia Curzon). They were married in Goebbel’s drawing room at his home in Berlin in October 1936, with Hitler and his inner-circle cronies present. Even more shocking was Diana’s younger sister Unity Mitford’s devotion to Hitler; she shot herself in the head in Munich on the day Britain declared war.
There is a passage in the book where Juliet goes undercover in her spy pseudonym of Iris Carter-Jenkins at an evening gathering in the Right Club, where she unexpectedly bumps into her high society friend and colleague at MI5, Clarissa. Perhaps a discreet authorial nod to the Mitford sisters, (seeing as their father Baron Redesdale had been mentioned earlier):
These men weren’t funny. They were in charge of the country, one way or another. Were they even now discussing how they would carve up power if Hitler marched along Whitehall?
‘Daddy’s ferociously right-wing, completely pro-German,’ Clarissa said. ‘We met Hitler, you know. In ’36, at the Games.’ (We?) ‘So obviously, I fit the part. You’re doing a good job of not looking shocked. Have a fag, why don’t you?’
Juliet took a cigarette from the familiar gold-crested packet. ‘But you’re not…you know, are you?’
‘One of them? Dear God no. Of course not. Don’t be silly. My sisters are, mind you. And Mummy. And poor Pammy, of course – she worships old Adolf, dreams about having his baby.’
The themes in Transcription are just as relevant today in peace time, when far right, populist politics seem to be gaining ground in the UK, Europe and the USA. It actually scares me.
The enemy may not be a messianic, narcissistic, occultist madman like Hitler, (or the megalomaniac dictators Stalin or Mao for that matter, ) for the discontent he fuelled with his charisma, passionate oratory and malevolent rhetoric enabled him, and those who did his evil bidding, to be responsible for the unimaginable cruelty of the Holocaust, as well as the millions of deaths globally of soldiers and civilians in the Second World War. So many souls that perished directly and as a result of the flawed and dangerous ideology of Fascism and race superiority.
Current political and national turmoil in the UK
The use of the word ‘sovereignty’ was bandied about by hardline Brexiteers like confetti at a wedding during the lead up to the EU referendum. Like we didn’t have it already…
To my mind ‘sovereignty’ was used as a disguised weapon, a veiled forerunner of toxic Nationalism.
The level of vitriol and hate towards migrants, the bare-faced lies and propaganda deployed from positions of power, on social media and ‘fake news’ platforms adversely influences and manipulates people’s thoughts and beliefs.
You only have to look at the chaos, fear and uncertainty that the leave campaign and Brexit has unleashed on the nation. Funnily enough, I don’t recall ever seeing the words ‘economic armageddon‘ plastered on the side of a big red Brexit bus…
We know that the EU is far from perfect, but peace prevailing in Europe for the last 73 years must surely count for something? We have become careless with our hard won freedoms.
Modern politics seems to have descended into fear fuelled extreme rhetoric, sowing division and discord. Where is the centre ground, the pragmatism, the hope, the democracy?
Okay, so the fine margin ‘will of the people’ was obtained by the manipulative and shameless silvery tongues of charlatans and liars, (who may well have believed their fantasies) and like lemmings the whole nation is careering towards an irreversible plunge off the edge of the proverbial Brexit cliff.
Theresa May’s intractable stance is: the people voted unwittingly to jump off a cliff, and I’m going to facilitate a deal to jump off the cliff, no matter what. To rethink jumping off a cliff is an affront to democracy.
Apparently, to readjust a course of action that appears to be a mistake is out of the question!
I don’t doubt the prime minister believes she is doing the right thing and has done her best under the circumstances; but she is afraid to ask the people to review their folly in the harsh light of the government’s ineptitude in negotiating Brexit – to be given a last chance to decide whether to proceed with it or not.
Tally ho, off the edge we go! Head first into a worst of all worlds, whether you voted remain or leave…
Brexit was sold to the nation as ‘taking back control’, not relinquishing it, and MPs now have a crucial vote on 11 December about the future of our country. The former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has also entered the fray, (Bloomberg article), as contempt and disgust over May’s proposed Brexit deal mounts.
It seems I’m not the only person to think of lemmings, as Matthew Parris has in this recent article I found in The Spectator. Nick Cohen at The Guardian also contends that politicians citing the ‘will of the people’ will be judged harshly by society in this brilliant article about post Brexit carnage.
Surely a second referendum could also open up the possibility of positive reform within the EU, as well as avoiding the inevitable hardships that this whole sorry episode in our nation’s long history will bring.
It seems we may be a step closer to this common sense vote after the government suffered three parliamentary defeats in the Commons on Wednesday.
An illuminating TED talk on why fascism is so tempting – and how your data could power it by Yuval Noah Harari:
“…in the end, democracy is not based on human rationality, it’s based on human feelings. During elections and referendums you’re not being asked, ‘What do you think?’ You’re actually being asked, ‘How do you feel?’ And if somebody can manipulate your emotions effectively, democracy will become an emotional puppet show.”~ Yuval Noah Harari
Anyhow, I digress, I just had to get that off my chest!
I couldn’t help but see the parallels of Transcription with the depressing political events unfolding in the UK. This book is so brilliant it makes you think about the scourge of Fascism, and the ways it can re-emerge its foul head.
The story highlights how opinions and actions are heightened during times of war, how collective beliefs are so crucial to the well-being and prosperity of any nation.
It was unusual for Kate Atkinson to start the book describing Juliet’s demise on Wigmore Street in 1981, with the memories of her life being told in the remaining minutes of her life.
The story properly gets going when in 1950 Juliet, (now a producer for the BBC in the Schools department), sees master spy (Godfrey Tobey), from her time at MI5. The tension becomes unbearable as we learn of Juliet’s contribution to the war effort, around the time of the Dunkirk evacuation.
Whether one lived or died seemed completely arbitrary, and risk of death was ever present for spies and double agents. The untimely reappearance of Godfrey Toby sparks her paranoia, which becomes acute as she perceives her life is in danger again, a decade after her wartime efforts.
Although she survives the war, but she carries emotional scars, as do many of the characters, scars that messily heal over but still contain an element of rawness.
I’m still reeling from the twist at the end, which I did not see coming…
My only small criticism of the book is not aimed at the actual ending itself, which was clever, and entirely plausible, but for the fact that I felt short-changed by a lack of foreshadowing. I didn’t have the faintest inkling of the plot twist. In hindsight I could have made more of a leap from Juliet’s love of Shostakovich, her interaction with Flamingo and her meeting at the museum in front of Rembrandt with Miles Merton.
Before I began reading Transcription I wondered what business a flamingo had being on the front cover, as it didn’t seem to have any connection with the premise of the book, but all that becomes clear towards the end of the novel, being tied up with the major plot twist.
In the end I was disappointed by Juliet, which, after being fully on her side for over 300 pages, felt like a kind of betrayal…
This book will stay with me for a long time, it warrants rereading at some point. It is the first novel I have read by Kate Atkinson, but it certainly won’t be the last.
I’d like to let the author have the last word from a recent interview about Transcription:
‘The mark of a good agent is when you have no idea which aside they’re on.’ It seemed to Juliet that there were some rather blurred boundaries when it came to beliefs – Perry had once been a member of the British Union of Fascists (‘It was useful,’ he said. ‘Helped me understand them’) and Hartley (Hartley, of all people!) had been a member of the Communist Party when he was at Cambridge. ‘But everyone was a Communist before the war,’ he protested.