Not for the first time, I have been reading The White Rabbit [London: Cassell & Co, 2000] by Bruce Marshall. Probably the first time was not long after it was first published in 1952 when memories of the recent war were still green. Marshall recounts the wartime experiences of Wing-Commander Yeo-Thomas, a long-time resident in France, fluent French speaker and a director of the couturier Molyneux which itself has been set up by a former British army officer after WW1. His experiences were nothing short of horrific and it is a testament to his mental, never mind physical, powers of endurance, and his ingenuity, that he survived to tell his tale through Marshall’s trenchant biography.
Yeo-Thomas (‘Tommy’) had to abandon his own father in Paris to make his way to the UK as war swept into France and the French government capitulated. Despite his obvious skills and the huge potential usefulness of his knowledge of France, its people and its language, he had to battle against that incomprehensible battalion of bureaucrats and over-promoted officers to become part, a vital part, of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) who ran agents in occupied France.
Tommy made three clandestine visits back to France; first to assess the current situation and the potential for an armed insurrection to follow the eventual invasion of France, D-Day, then to try to co-ordinate the disparate efforts in France. Carelessness and betrayal left the organisation in France leaderless and Tommy made his third visit to try and retrieve the situation. Despite his field craft which kept him out of the hands of the Gestapo for several months, he too was betrayed and thus began his own journey through Hell.
Why should we find the account of his torture, on top of on-going systematic brutality and degradation, make such an impression on the reader now, in the 21st century where we are sadly familiar with deliberate yet mindless terrorism? It is surely that most thinking people cannot fully comprehend the mind set of those who commit such despicable acts. But we have been told and reminded of man’s inhumanity to man over the millennia and, just possibly, we have begun to take it all too much for granted. Tommy’s story is a powerful reminder of what can be achieved through will-power, patriotism and, above all loyalty.
Bruce Marshall was well-qualified to write Tommy’s story. He too had worked in Paris for many years before the war, working as an auditor for what is now PwC. He too was an ex-serviceman having served in both World Wars and in the same RF section of SOE as Yeo-Thomas. He used to say that in accounting circles he was regarded as someone who wrote books and in writing circles as someone who may well have been a competent auditor! One novel he went on to write a few years after The White Rabbit, has become one of my own favourite books. I feel I will have to revisit The Bank Audit later this year and share it with you.
If we are serious about wanting the world to be a better place, we need to be reminded of what kind of a place it could become unless we pay the price of liberty; an unending standing order, not a simple lump sum!