Captain courageous

Jamie Blackett reviews Vintage Roger: Letters from the PoW years by Roger Mortimer

For Dear Lupin fans Vintage Roger provides an interesting prequel that gives fresh insight into the life of one of the twentieth century’s most amusing letter writers and top Dads. (How many fathers have written so copiously and entertainingly to their children that all three of them have had books published using the material?). I am a big Roger Mortimer fan.

Vintage Roger: Letters from the PoW years by Roger Mortimer, edited by Charlie Mortimer, Little Brown, £16.99

He served in my regiment two generations before me, and I see him most mornings in a regimental photograph on our loo wall with a suppressed smile on his face, six feet away from my grandfather. One of my most exciting coups as a writer was to unearth a cache of six Mortimer letters to the Eton beak Michael Kidson, which are now in my book, The Enigma of Kidson: Portrait of a Schoolmaster.

The war diary of 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards for 16 May 1940 drily records the collision of the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg with the British Expeditionary Force: “The enemy broke through the Belgians on our left, placing No 3 and 4 companies in a very precarious position … the order was given to abandon our positions … with enemy pressure continuing, this was not an easy undertaking … during the day’s fighting Captain RF Mortimer was reported missing.”

His death notice appeared in The Times but in fact Mortimer, who, as a company commander, would have been one of the last men to leave the position, had been wounded and captured. So began five long years of hardship in PoW camps. Amidst desperation Mortimer always finds humour, his defining characteristic, and bizarrely the first thing that happens to him is being wheeled in front of an aristocratic Nazi general, whom he had met at Royal Ascot.

The general asks, “How is Bulgy Thorne by the way?” Mortimer is escorted by two German officers: “True to form as regards most officers, they were unable to read a map and got hopelessly lost. I could understand a little German (having been taught some at Eton by ‘Satan’ Ford) and at one point the situation was so desperate that they were considering asking me to help them out.”

The letters are to an acquaintance, Peggy Dunne. They don’t know each other well: in one of the earlier letters he thanks her for “an awfully nice present, especially to a comparative stranger”. Her writing sheds light on the war effort of some of the wives left at home; she adopted this bachelor PoW, and perhaps others, as a penfriend to bolster his morale and comes across as a thoroughly good egg. She is a happily married mother of three and there is no romantic entanglement between them, although from time to time as their friendship develops there is the mild flirtation of good friends and a hint of what Evelyn Waugh called “a thin bat’s squeak of sexuality”.

At one point Mortimer signs off his letter with “a great big wet kiss anywhere you fancy”. And, as was usual among the upper classes at the time, they converse in an uninhibited way about sex—it’s good to be reminded that it started well before the Sixties.

The letters start during the phony war and describe a visit to a French brothel: “A handful of exceptionally democratic officers were behaving like the less likeable sort of undergraduate, while the picture was completed by a troupe of elderly trollops who had probably seen service during the siege of Paris … Arthur, a nice intellectual Wykehamist, sidled off with a dumpy little number who I expect was taller in the prone position than she was standing up.”

Like a play where all the action takes place off stage, the most powerful messages are in what is left unsaid. The letters are heavily censored by both British and German officers, a fact often referred to when bits have been deleted. Like a homesick boy writing home from prep school he is unable to tell Peggy what the conditions are really like, having to resort to coded metaphors. We also know that Mortimer very courageously risked severe punishment, perhaps his life, by operating an illegal radio; the story is recounted in The Coldstreamer and the Canary by his daughter Jane Torday—the canary was the radio hidden in a medicine ball. He would have had to be very careful not to give any hint that he knew how the war was going.

And like another period piece, the film Brief Encounter, the letters are haunted by a clipped emotional restraint. We sense the frustration of a young man, defeated, deprived of female company, impotent while his contemporaries get married and start families. Roger writes, “This strange life amid strange people makes me feel that I was killed in May.”

Mortimer’s prose style, which gave him posthumous fame through Dear Lupin, has yet to be fully developed in these letters. But there are some excellent descriptions. John, later Lord, Hunt, the conqueror of Everest, is described as an officer cadet at Sandhurst: “In common with so many young men of lofty moral standards, he suffered badly from boils on the neck.” And his military anecdotes are refreshingly non-PC to read while wokeism is corroding discourse in the
Anglosphere: a sergeant-major at Sandhurst bellows an order at the non-Anglicans at church parade, “March off the minor religions.”

Mortimer suffered malnutrition in the camps and in a final twist he was nearly killed when an American pilot mistakenly machine-gunned a column of PoWs on one of the terrible marches between camps in 1945. One of his best friends was. Yet he never bore the Germans a grudge and holidayed there after the war, though his son Charlie remembers his father visibly shaking when he had to show his passport at the border.

At a time when the nation is reflecting on what it means to be British, these letters give us a reminder of the best of our national characteristics —grace, courage and humour in adversity.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover