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The Tunnel, Eric Williams (1951)

Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949) is a classic not just of its genre but of English literature as a whole, I’d say. This later book about an earlier time isn’t a classic even in its genre. Or maybe it just suffers by comparison. Either way, it’s definitely better at describing what life in a German prisoner-of-war camp was like, because most of it is set in one. In The Wooden Horse, Williams is beyond the wire and on the run much of the time.

Not that he names himself: both of these books are written in the third person about two prisoners called Peter Howard, who’s Williams himself, and John Clinton, who’s a friend of his. The third person gives The Tunnel a novelistic quality, as though Williams is thinking himself in a character’s head rather than describing what it was really like to be that character:

As the tunnel moved steadily on towards the wire the possibility of escape loomed larger and larger in Peter’s head. […] From waking until sleeping he carried with him the warm comforting thought of that long, dark, slippery, suffocating burrow that would, one day, take him and John under the barbed wire and away to that free, almost unreal world that lay beyond. Whenever he walked along the path between the cookhouse and the Russian compound he knew he was walking over the tunnel, remembering lying there and hearing the footsteps walking as he was walking now. (Part 2, ch. V)

Those adjectives – “long, dark, slippery” – make the tunnel sound like a vagina that he’ll pass through to a second birth. But that’s what Williams himself thought: being in the tunnel, he says to his friend John, is “almost like going into a woman.” And tunnelling is “a sort of retreat, almost like burrowing back into the womb.” Despite the simplicity and clarity of their prose, The Tunnel and The Wooden Horse are profound and psychologically sophisticated books. They conjure both the external and the internal world of the POW camps: what it was like to be there physically and what it was like to be there emotionally.

And even before his second birth, the tunnel-vagina offered him another kind of escape:

He enjoyed working at the tunnel face. Lying flat on his stomach, picking away unseeing at the clay in front of his head, he felt that he was really getting somewhere, really doing something towards getting out of the camp. Moreover he was alone, lying there in the darkness and dank air of the tunnel: alone in a small world of silence, a world bounded by the feeble rays of the lamp that guttered by his head. He was more alone than he could be anywhere else in the camp. Up there in the crowded barrack block, on the teeming circuit, he was aware all the time of his fellow prisoners; their habits of speech and the almost maddening proximity – the body odour and the unconscious elbow in the ribs. But down in the tunnel it was dark and lonely, and he sang to himself as he picked away at the hard clay and felt sorry when it was his turn to leave the tunnel to go back to his place in the shaft. (Part 2, ch. V)

But I corrected part of that as I transcribed it: in the paperback from 1973 that I own, it says “a world hounded by the feeble rays of the lamp”. I like the typo and the serendipity of its meaning. And I liked correcting it as though I were a scribe many centuries ago. In some ways the paperback and Williams’ story are closer to scribal times than they are to the twenty-first century. Paperback and story are pre-internet, and the story is effectively pre-electronic. The POW camp didn’t have surveillance cameras, only a seismograph. The prisoners could get away with much more than they could have today.

Williams couldn’t have been aware of that, but he was aware that he was writing in a very long tradition: “What was it Marcus Aurelius had said? At what time soever thou wilt, it is in thy power to retire into thyself, and to be at rest, and free from all businesses?” (Part 2, ch. X) The quote is from the Meditations (161-180 AD) and The Tunnel asks questions about human existence in a similar way. Why are we here? How should we act? How should we respond to frustration, suffering and injustice?

The Wooden Horse asks and answers the questions better. Or doesn’t answer them better. Williams did not discover the meaning of life while he was imprisoned or on the run. But he did discover the importance of consciousness and the beauty of small aspects of a very large world, which was here long before we existed and will be here long after we’re gone. After the war, he conveyed the importance and beauty in his writing. The Wooden Horse is the classic that made his name, but The Tunnel is definitely worth a read too.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Escape and Essence — review of Williams’ The Wooden Horse (1949)

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The Wooden Horse by Eric WilliamsThe Wooden Horse, Eric Williams (Pen & Sword 2013)

This book is about much more than ingenuity, effort and escape: it’s about existence. First published in 1949, it tells the story of three British prisoners of war who found an especially ingenious way to overcome the anti-escape restrictions of Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań in Poland). The perimeter fence was a long way from the huts and the Germans were using seismographs to detect any sound of digging. Solution? Simple: start a tunnel beneath the open sky while men jump up and down around you to cover the sound of your digging.

But how on earth do you do that? The title of the book supplies the answer: build a wooden vaulting horse, knock it over a few times to show the guards that it’s innocently empty, then hide inside it the next time it’s carried out and start digging. The excavated soil is carried back in the horse when the vaulting session is over and the entrance to the tunnel is concealed with a trapdoor. This means that Eric Williams and his companions, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot, were using a disguise even before they escaped. They go under other names – Peter Howard, John Clinton and Philip Rowe – in this book, which is written like a novel in the third person. That allows Williams to use interior monologues, to switch locations and perspectives, and to be more descriptive than he would have been in a straight history. The Wooden Horse is full of sights, sounds, smells and sensations:

Peter leaned on the window-sill. It was late spring. Beyond the wire he could see the pale fronds of a silver birch graceful against the dark background of the pine forest […] a cascade of delicate green, almost yellow in the morning sun. […] Under the wire the sand was moist with dew and dew sparkled on the barbed wire. The long green living huts looked washed and cool, uncluttered as yet by the thousand prisoners who would soon spread their restlessness throughout the camp. He refused to think of the biting flies that would swarm into the hut and plague them as the day warmed up. (Part one, “Inside”, ch. 1, pg. 22)

He crossed to the trapdoor and lowered himself into the space under the hut. The sand felt cool to his hands and the air was musty and full of the odour of pinewood. He crawled towards the edge of the hut and lay waiting until John joined him. “After the next beam,” he whispered. “Then we’ll make a dash for the sand pit.” […] Peter looked up at the sky. It was the first time he had been out-of-doors at night since he was captured. There were no clouds and the heavens were trembling with a myriad stars. (Ibid., ch. 2, pg. 45)

The sheet of thin card the Escape committee had provided was almost as thick as that on which the pass was printed. He cut two pieces of the right size; cutting them carefully with the razor blade and metal ruler on the glass top of the dressing table, forgetting even the ultimate aim of his work. He would be absorbed for the rest of the afternoon and would finish the job with aching eyes and stiff shoulders; but rested and in some way renewed by the intensity of his concentration. (Part two, “Outside”, ch. 1, pp. 208-9)

There’s an important phrase in that final paragraph: “the ultimate aim”. What is it? Like the object it’s named after, The Wooden Horse is carrying more than it seems and in the end readers will find themselves in the same position as the German guards at Stalag Sagan. Just as there was much more to the vaulting than the guards realized, so there’s much more to the story of three prisoners and their escape than you first realize. The final page of The Wooden Horse will cast everything that’s gone before in a new light. It’s a memorable book about deception and disguise that is itself deceptive and wearing a disguise. A story set in a particular narrow time and situation is really about something much wider. You’ll learn a lot about life in a German POW camp in the Second World War, but you’ll also learn things about yourself. This is an existential book, sometimes in a serious way, sometimes not. Sometimes there’s humour in something serious, like the “ghosts” in the camp:

At some time in the early days the prisoners had managed to confuse the German nominal role, so that there were fewer of them on the books than were in the camp. These supernumeraries went into hiding at appell, and were kept in reserve to take the place of any prisoner who had escaped or who wanted for some reason to disappear. The life of a ghost was not a happy one. Not being on the roll he could draw no rations and even his letters from home had to be addressed to another prisoner. (“Inside”, pg. 85)

There are also glimpses of horror. When they escape to a Baltic port and try to find a ship for neutral Sweden, they see starving Russian prisoners being used as slave labour. “Escaping was still a sport to us,” says Eric Williams in an introduction he wrote in 1978. To the Russians it was an impossibility: they were too weak to attempt it, too far from home to consider it. And home was full of horror too. Wars are engines of cruelty and destruction, but even at its height the Second World War didn’t destroy everything or crush everyone. The Wooden Horse was made truly famous by the film, but the book has much more than the film. Sand, sun and trembling stars: after Williams broke out of Sagan, he broke into history and wrote a classic not just about escape, but about the essence of life.

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