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John Verney - Araine Banks on John Verney, Going to the Wars; A Dinner of Herbs - Slightly Foxed Issue 12

Brothers in the Abruzzi

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John Verney, painter, illustrator, author and inventor of the invaluable maverick desk diary, the Dodo Pad (‘to stop one becoming extinct from the pressures of modern life’), loomed large in my childhood. Apart from being among my parents’ closest friends and neighbours, and paterfamilias of a large brood of children, Shetland ponies, chickens, cats, cows and bees, all of which somehow became inextricably mixed up in my memory, he was always there. Most fathers were away somewhere doing a job, but whenever we went to Runwick, the Verneys’ rambling farmhouse on the edge of Farnham in Surrey, he was always to be found wandering vaguely around in his shapeless jacket, or making paint-spattered forays from his studio in the barns, or presiding laconically over whatever rabble-rousing meal was in progress.

He was also, much to our delight, an inexhaustible source of surprises, jokes, pranks and discoveries, for under his mild and somewhat melancholy demeanour there lurked an irreverent wit and a sharp sense of fun. He was continually coming up with stories, puns and sketches to amuse us (many of which he transmuted into material for The Young Elizabethan, the children’s periodical he edited for more than a decade), and as author of the enthralling Friday’s Tunnel he occupied a particularly key position in my firmament.

Friday’s Tunnel is a children’s adventure story about a scatty family of six children who dig a huge tunnel under the South Downs, set against the sinister backdrop of dastardly goings-on on the Mediterranean island of Capria. Little did I know then how imaginatively this story was grounded in Verney’s own hair-raising war exploits, and how many narrow escapes he had had. Not until I was an adult did I first read Going to the Wars, his memoir of his time in the loosely camouflaged Special Boat Service during the Second World War and in particular their mission to blow up German airfields in Sardinia, to pave the way for the Allied invasion of Sicily.

Later I came across a second volume of memoirs, A Dinner of Herbs, which is a sequel of sorts to Going to the Wars and which is illustrated with equally enchanting sketches. Verney picks up the story in 1943

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John Verney, painter, illustrator, author and inventor of the invaluable maverick desk diary, the Dodo Pad (‘to stop one becoming extinct from the pressures of modern life’), loomed large in my childhood. Apart from being among my parents’ closest friends and neighbours, and paterfamilias of a large brood of children, Shetland ponies, chickens, cats, cows and bees, all of which somehow became inextricably mixed up in my memory, he was always there. Most fathers were away somewhere doing a job, but whenever we went to Runwick, the Verneys’ rambling farmhouse on the edge of Farnham in Surrey, he was always to be found wandering vaguely around in his shapeless jacket, or making paint-spattered forays from his studio in the barns, or presiding laconically over whatever rabble-rousing meal was in progress.

He was also, much to our delight, an inexhaustible source of surprises, jokes, pranks and discoveries, for under his mild and somewhat melancholy demeanour there lurked an irreverent wit and a sharp sense of fun. He was continually coming up with stories, puns and sketches to amuse us (many of which he transmuted into material for The Young Elizabethan, the children’s periodical he edited for more than a decade), and as author of the enthralling Friday’s Tunnel he occupied a particularly key position in my firmament. Friday’s Tunnel is a children’s adventure story about a scatty family of six children who dig a huge tunnel under the South Downs, set against the sinister backdrop of dastardly goings-on on the Mediterranean island of Capria. Little did I know then how imaginatively this story was grounded in Verney’s own hair-raising war exploits, and how many narrow escapes he had had. Not until I was an adult did I first read Going to the Wars, his memoir of his time in the loosely camouflaged Special Boat Service during the Second World War and in particular their mission to blow up German airfields in Sardinia, to pave the way for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Later I came across a second volume of memoirs, A Dinner of Herbs, which is a sequel of sorts to Going to the Wars and which is illustrated with equally enchanting sketches. Verney picks up the story in 1943 when he was camped with ‘a jolly band of pirates’ at Athlit on the Palestinian coast, preparing for small-scale raids on whatever target presented itself. An offshoot of a dash ing commando unit called Bomfrey’s Boys, Verney’s fifty-strong contingent were an unorthodox lot, led by a Socialistic [sic] peer, and including in their ranks a truant Conservative MP, a morose Oxford don much given to sitting on a rock and reading the Iliad in the original, and a Byronic spycum-painter of indeterminate origin. Between marching over thyme-scented hills and practice in landing small dinghies on rocks, the men raced naked along the sands or swam the mouth of Athlit Bay. Occasional visitors included Wilfred Thesiger, taking a parachute course on his way from the Western to the Arabian Desert, who would become a lifelong friend of Verney’s. This was an idyllic interlude and – inevitably – it was not to last long. We next meet Verney holed up in an Italian POW camp in the Abruzzi, having been captured while sabotaging a German airfield. He had had more than enough of adventure by this stage, and had received some pretty rough treatment at the hands of his captors, so he was only too pleased to find himself safely behind barbed wire and (temporarily) out of trouble. The camp seemed to offer everything a man could want, from concerts to classes in aerodynamics, reliable quantities of minestrone and pasta, a daily half-pint of wine, and, above all, the prospect of imminent release following the Allied invasion of Italy. Underlying it all, however, was the insidious fear generated by total dependence on an unpredictable foe: various plans were hatched to tunnel out of the camp and sabotage a key bridge, but nothing came of them. ‘Supposing you did get away, what could you do next in a place like the Abruzzi? The peasants would catch up and hand you over at once. There’s a thousand lire reward for escaped prisoners . . . Even if you reached the mountains, you’d be no better off. They’re as steep and wild as hell. You’d die of exposure in a day or two, if you hadn’t died of thirst or starved to death first.’ So the prisoners reasoned. In the circumstances it seemed an altogether better option to lie low, improve one’s pen-and-wash technique, write, learn Italian and make some progress with Frazer’s Golden Bough. When, after the Armistice, the foe changed from Italian to German, and the whole camp of POWs was herded into cattle trucks en route to the Fatherland, it was obviously the moment to bolt for it. During a short night-time halt Verney and his friend and comrade-in-arms Amos levered themselves out of the ventilator on to the track and flung themselves into a field of beans, only to freeze in their tracks as they heard someone else flailing around in the foliage. It was not, as it turned out, a German sentry or an Italian peasant intent on turning them over to the authorities, but the morose (and arrogant) Oxford don Mark Duffy, who was to prove a not unqualified asset in the escapade ahead. Then begins an account of simple heroism that dwarfs all the exploits that preceded it: heroism not so much on the part of the three escapees, though they were brave enough, but of the peasants they encountered who sheltered them in their homes and in mountain caves, and thereby placed themselves in great personal danger, and who undoubtedly saved their lives. It was to be six months from the night they threw themselves off the train to the moment that Verney stumbled over the Allied line at Montenero: six months of harsh winter and dire privation, recounted with humour, irony and not an iota of self-pity – though reading it makes one grateful for the simplest comforts. Far from handing them over for a reward of a thousand lire, the Abruzzesi they encountered proved to be saviours of a mettle and fortitude they could hardly have imagined. The inglesi were first taken under the wing of a band of giovanotti, young partisans who, drunk on their own bravado, behaved like brigands, dominating the neighbourhood and throwing their weight around with impunity. They were not as brave as they liked to think, however. As soon as things started to hot up, they fled, though not before handing their charges on to old Paolo, the first of a chain of Abruzzi stalwarts. From Paolo the escapees were passed on to Gabriele, and then his nephew Dionino. Both did what they could, but their nerve in turn failed them: it was Dionino’s prospective father-in-law Antonio and his friend Sinibaldo Amatangelo, known as Sam, who took the men to their hearts as if they were brothers. Both Antonio and Sam lived in desperate poverty and had hardly enough food for themselves and their animals, let alone three famished Englishmen. They also lived in constant fear of raids from the Germans, should their suspicions be in any way aroused. Yet they obviously considered it a point of honour to keep the inglesi safe and fed, and they devised elaborate strategies to outwit the Germans. Verney and his companions had absolutely nothing to offer in return, except hopeful assurances that when the Allies arrived they would be recompensed. Sam, moreover, had to cope with the tears and silent recriminations of a wife who saw any prospect of adequately feeding her own three sons recede into the distance with the arrival of these voracious visitors, but he was not deterred. And light relief was provided by the appearance of Frank del Signore, a Woosterish Englishman in hiding, clad in impeccable plus-fours of brown tweed and a trilby of palest fawn, who declared that his mission, or ‘duty and desire’, was to help other fugitives, and who, ever practical, sent a tin of meat and a dagger with which to open it. When things became too strained in the valley, the three were shepherded up to the first of a series of caves, each remoter and less comfortable than the last, where they eked out the long days of cold and hunger by scratching images on the rock face, attempting to stem Mark’s flow of recondite, donnish information, and talking . . . of the nationalization of the railways, the Abdication, Oscar Wilde, their affairs of the heart, and of art, that great standby. Talking passed the time, but it couldn’t dispel their gnawing hunger: the unequal division of one walnut could result in days of bad feeling and bickering under such straitened circumstances. But then they would catch the strains of ‘The British Grenadiers’ on the wind, and Frank del Signore would appear with the latest news on the Allied front, or Sam or Antonio would heave themselves into view with whatever food or wine they had managed to muster. With the arrival of winter came heavy snows and icy temperatures. By December it became apparent that the situation was no longer endurable and they must make a dash for it – despite Amos’s debilitating malaria. Faithful to the end, Sam appeared with a weighty iron shoe-last strapped to his back and with it he repaired their broken boots. A Dinner of Herbs was nearly not written. In Going to the Wars John Verney recounts how he came across a review of other accounts of wartime escapades, penned no doubt by some callow youth:
One is becoming as bored of these escape stories as of their tellers, beamish boys galumphing their way home through a tangle of generous peasants, Fascist spies and boastful partisans. They march great distances, but Einstein, one imagines, goes farther every day without stirring a foot. Cave life in the mountains, chianti and pasta in lofts by candlelight, tappings on the shutter, sudden arrivals and hasty departures, even the final dash through the lines, all are by now situational clichés, unredeemed, as a rule, by literary skill.
Ever diffident, Verney so took this to heart that in Going to the Wars there is barely a mention of the Abruzzi peasants to whom he owed his life. But ten years later he did take up his pen again, and exercised a great deal of literary skill in writing A Dinner of Herbs. By dint of alternating chapters on the war with the present (returning to Italy with the dashing Matthew Prendergast, a trusted but sceptical friend, and revisiting Sam, Antonio and the caves), and taking certain liberties which he gamely owns up to in his Author’s Note, he weaves an ingenious tale, laying deft clues as to the fate of each protagonist along the way. The result is a structural tour de force, an immensely satisfying story, and a witty and moving tribute to rare companions in adversity.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 12 © Ariane Bankes 2006


About the contributor

At the time of writing, Ariane Bankes was writing a book about Black Sheep (of the family variety). If you have particularly colourful nominations, do contact her at [email protected]

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