The other one turned out to be Freddy Denton. Actually it would have been possible to know both him and his friend Alec Burch since our time at Weston-super-Mare, but somehow we had not come across each other. We were now part of a little group who were drawn together by some mutual interests which included a somewhat generalised leftishness in politics. Amongst them were Arthur Hooper – known as Hoop – and George Aaron who, as members of the Communist Party, were more sharply focussed politically. Somehow these two got to know one of the Medical Officers, a Captain Frank Fish, who was also a party member, and these three took more seriously their duty to spread the word. Meetings and discussions were organised, but with somewhat limited appeal. Much more successful was a news magazine called ‘Underground’ which appeared monthly and was read by almost everybody. It did contain quite a lot of propaganda but what was more interesting for most people was a section of war news and commentary, with maps. Frank Fish, through his contacts with Italian doctors, had access to various publications which provided more information than was available to us in the official bulletins. The maps were particularly welcomed as giving some idea of the places that were mentioned in Russia or the Far East. Other articles were written by Hoop or by George and some on medical topics by Frank. Freddy and I provided some illustrations and I did a series of feeble dirty-joke cartoons.
The two of us were also the production team; everything had to be written out, or drawn, six times over. This provided a copy, bound in a cardboard cover, for each of the barrack rooms, and someone in each room undertook the job of seeing that it was passed around from bed to bed. The first issue was ready by the end of December and it continued for ten issues until the Armistice of the following September. Looking back at it now, I suspect that this publication was of more value to us than to its readers. It provided some sense of purpose and, above all, kept us busy.
Quite apart from politics, there were some interesting people in our little group. There was also the co-incidence of Frank Fish having bean at school with me [Central Foundation Boys School, near Old Street]. He was three or four years my senior and I had not known him at the time but he was a very typical product of a school which served the ambitions of clever scholarship boys from Whitechapel and the East End of London. He had been brought up by his mother in real poverty – his father had been killed in the 1914 war – and it had been a real struggle to get an education. In those days most places at grammar schools were fee-paying: to get a scholarship, and the small grant that went with it, was a real achievement. Once there, our school, on the fringes of the City, could hardly be regarded as providing a broad educational experience, but it was well geared up to cramming bright pupils for entrance awards to University. The less academic and vaguely artistic boys like myself, were not so well served, but a good job was done for Frank in getting him to medical school. By the time he qualified we were at war and, as he had been attached to one of the infantry battalions in our brigade, there were a number of squaddies from the 4th East Yorks now in the camp who spoke well of him as a sympathetic medical officer. I doubt if his socialist views had gone down very well in the officers mess, however.
The first letters from our families at home arrived during November and from then onwards came fairly regularly. We learned that they were also permitted to send us books and parcels of clothing, although it was several months before any arrived and many must have been lost on the way.
During December, Harry Brown became ill and went into the camp infirmary with nephritis, a kidney complaint which turned his complexion yellow, and must have been infectious as there were a number of other cases. He was then sent to the civilian hospital at Macerata but returned after a week or so without any sign of improvement. Soon afterwards he was transferred to a military hospital some eighty miles away at Teramo. I have never heard directly from him since, but understand that he remained there for the next several months until the Armistice and was then taken to Germany. The most common cause for admission to the infirmary that Winter was pneumonia. At one period there seemed to be several deaths each week. This we were well aware of in our barrack room, which was opposite the infirmary doorway, and we were regularly called upon to provide an ad hoc guard of honour when a coffin was carried out.
From December onwards the number of prisoners in the camp was increased slightly by the arrival of some who had been taken in Algeria after the Allied invasion of the previous month. Amongst them was Norman Towle, a cheerful and sociable man from Nottingham who soon became one of our circle. It seemed extraordinary to be talking with someone who had been in England only a few weeks earlier. It was now twenty months since we
had sailed from Liverpool, at a time when the prospect of the war ever ending seemed remote. Since then, with the entry of Russia and America, the situation had slowly begun to change, and by the end of 1942 the sequence of dreadful Allied defeats on all fronts, had we but known it, was at an end.
Although work on the production of ‘Underground’ kept us fairly busy, there was still much time spent in conversation, some of it organised and serious, like the regular seminars on Marxism, but much of it just the general and gossipy exchange which is part of the process of forming friendships. There were also conversations where one was merely the listener. Lying on my bunk in the billet I was surrounded by constant chatter, and indirectly learned the problems and preoccupations of those within earshot. Just below me on the other side of the gangway there was a nice little Yorkshireman who was virtually illiterate. Alf was a cheerful chap and was certainly not stupid, but schooling had somehow passed him by. As he was to work on a farm as a cowman I suppose there had been little incentive to learn to read. However, he was now married, and he had to rely on a friend to read out his wife’s letters and to help write replies to them. His wife’s letters were charmingly simple and affectionate and often included suitable extracts from the verses of Patience Strong which at that time were published in the Daily Mirror. As cuttings were not allowed to be included in letters these had all been copied out. The friend was hardly discreet in his readings but Alf seemed unembarrassed by the broadcast of his wife’s endearments and the extreme sentimentality of the verse. His reader 1iked to declaim the latter for the benefit of all; some lines of verse became catch-phrases in our part of the billet, particularly one which had a repeated refrain of ‘O my darling, love of THEE’, the final word being delivered in a long drawn out shriek.
I am not sure if the abnormality of our way of life encouraged eccentricity, or merely that it made the unconventional more visible. Certainly some of my neighbours had some strange interests, one of the weirdest being that of a man who made a daily report on his visits to the latrines where, as there was no flush system, he was able to make an inspection of many of the faeces. It was the variety of texture, colour and shape of these stools which fascinated him. How could they be so different when we were all eating exactly the same food? Sometimes he had tried to arouse his listeners to a greater interest in his researches: “There was this turd this morning,” he would exclaim, “no exaggeration, it was thicker than my wrist and longer than my arm!” Our responses to this kind of revelation must have been disappointing to him however, and coprophilia remained a minority interest.
There were a number of people who were good with their hands, and who made useful objects from food tins and other improvised or salvaged materials. I was never much use at this sort of thing but had purchased, with cigarettes as currency, a mug with a riveted handle, a knife made from a metal tent-peg, and a tin-opener of which the business part had been the steel heel-plate from an army boot. The skills involved in making these artefacts seemed modest when compared with those of Alec Burch. He had set about making a clock; obliged to do it, he declared, by his being one of the very few who still had a watch and was fed up with being constantly asked the time. To design and build a clock from scratch, even with the resources of a workshop, tools and a supply of suitable materials, would not have been easy; all Alec had to begin with was a pair of nail scissors. He was however an ingenious man who was able to calculate the necessary gear ratios and find a solution to the practical problems of making a wall clock which was to be weight driven and to have a one-second pendulum. In the early days of planning, he was observed by a neighbour – who knew nothing of the project – as he experimented to find the correct length for the pendulum. From his top-bunk bed he was gently swinging a food tin on a length of string; but what particularly alarmed the neighbours was that it was a full tin. Fearing that he was having some sort of mental breakdown, they sent for the Medical Officer. The doctor on duty was Frank Fish.All the principal parts of the clock were made from tins, and were attached to what had been a wooden bed-slat from Alec’s bunk. The bases of food cans, of various diameters, provided the cog wheels; the pendulum was suspended from a razor-blade, and the driving weights were cans which had been filled with cement from a building repair job which was going on in the compound. I undertook to make the clock-face and it was decided that this should conceal as little as possible of the actual working parts as these were the main interest. A simple ring was needed which would leave the centre of the face open and a diameter of at least twelve inches was required. As there was no suitable cardboard available of this size, I used the centre trays of twenty-four cigarette packets and Alec clipped them together to form a circle. By Christmas the clock was finished and was in operation, keeping perfect time and known to everyone as the ‘Klim-clock’ after the powdered-milk tins which provided the largest wheels. Alec’s clock became famous, not only with the prisoners but with the Italians too. There exists a nice photograph of Alec, seemingly wearing only a great-coat and boots, standing outside the billet where it had been moved for the purposes of photography by an Italian officer.
Sometime during the Christmas period, a group of enthusiasts wrote and presented a musical comedy, rather in the thirties style of Ivor Novello. I cannot now remember where it can have been performed or much about it, except that the sight of the ‘lady’ members of cast made a great impression on me. This was not so much a direct nostalgia for female company, but rather a reminiscence of a similar scene in the Jean Renoir film ‘La Grande Illusion’ which I had seen pre-war. Actually this film, although certainly one of the greatest movies ever made, otherwise presents few episodes which have much resemblance to our life in Campo 53.
Apart from the doctors there were three other officer prisoners; these were army chaplains: C of E, Catholic and Methodist. I am sure that there must have been Church services on Sundays, but I cannot remember anything of them, not even on Christmas Day. We did however manage to celebrate Christmas to some extent, if not by religious observance then by another tradition, that is to say by over-eating. Most people managed to save up something from their Red Cross parcels for the occasion. I made a curious sort of trifle, the basis of which was milk-powder mixed with crushed biscuit and flavoured with jam. The next morning I suffered all the symptoms of hang-over.