Book review: A Very English Hero

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A Very English Hero
Peter J. Conradi (Bloomsbury, £18.99, *£14.99)

Frank Thompson formerly of Secret Intelligence’s ‘private army’ known as Phantom, by now of SOE (Special Operations Executive)-parachuted into Serbia to liaise with Bulgarian partisans on the night of January 24, 1944. He was just 23. Before June was out, he was dead, having been tortured prior
to execution. Others had their eyes gouged out. After a summary hearing in a village hall, he and his comrades were marched off, not, as it proved, to a place of detention, but to be slaughtered
in a roadside ditch.

In Bulgaria, Thompson is a national hero. The power of legend to distort fact is legion. Nonetheless, as evidence has been put to the test and the precise story of his last hours readjusted, courage and ‘intransigent idealism’, in Storm Jameson’s phrase, remain the order of Thompson’s last day and of all the days leading up to it. Thompson’s attraction for SOE depended much on his Frank captioned this photograph ‘Who is this handsome man?’

Private Collection; The Piper Estate Biography A Very English Hero Peter J. Conradi (Bloomsbury,£18.99, *£14.99) linguistic brilliance and social caste (he was a Wykehamist). That he was a committed Communist- Iris Murdoch, whom he adored, played a part here- did not go amiss either. Communism was not an unusual affiliation among the upper middle-class young in the dirty decade as it counted down to Armageddon.

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SOE held it to be a useful qualification in establishing contact with partisan groups-useful and not without risk, one should add. But it was probably the recent allied bombing of Sofia that fuelled the venom of his captors against the presence in their country of this Englishman who spoke fluent Russian. Reading Peter Conradi’s riveting book, one must constantly remind oneself of just how young Thompson was.

But if he was residually always so in mind-he cultivated his inner child with delightful humour- he was intellectually a true prodigy, old for his years. The story of this brilliance begins with missionary Christianity in Syria, where Thompson’s American mother, Theo, was born, and in India, where his father E. J. Thompson, a celebrated writer on matters Indian, set foot in the Methodist cause.

The story moves to Boar’s Hill by Oxford, with much to amuse as to the donnish and literary community there (including the Robert Graves ménage), and to Oxford, where E. J. Thompson developed an association with Oriel College. Writing ran in the family. Frank’s younger brother was
E. P. Thompson, whose great classic was The Making of the English Working Class (1963).

Frank’s preferred form was poetry. In several pieces, he showed both promise and accomplishment, but I’m not sure, had he lived, that it would have proved his real vocation. Mr Conradi has written a powerfully moving story, a tragic biography, and an invaluable history of the partial unmaking of an old order-a cause to which Frank Thompson had devoted his short life.

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