Helen Watson White
Searching for Charlie: In pursuit of the real Charles Upham VC & Bar by Tom Scott (Upstart Press, 2020) 368pp, $49.99
I have to confess that I wanted to review Searching for Charlie not because of its subject—a war hero both famous and infamous for his unstoppable aggression—but because of its author, Tom Scott, a cartoonist and columnist both famous and infamous for his satirical zeal.
Scott’s urge to make satire is equalled only by his enthusiasm for storytelling. At the end of his engaging and agonising study of his own family life, Drawn Out: A seriously funny memoir, he acknowledges: ‘I am indebted to a legion of editors on the New Zealand Listener, the Evening Post, the Auckland Star and the Dominion Post for giving me the freedom to leave my office desk in pursuit of stories I thought worth telling.’ The Upham story is one of those, and in March 2019 Scott left the Dominion Post altogether to pursue it. The search for ‘the real Charles Upham’, like his pursuit of Sir Edmund Hillary (for a TV series, a book and a documentary), involved extensive travel in New Zealand and overseas.
Scott does not pretend to be a formal biographer or historian. He ghost-wrote Hillary’s View from the Summit by travelling alongside the great man, his subject becoming his friend. In the early pages of Searching for Charlie he compares the two figures, both national heroes: ‘Ed was never boastful’ and exhibited a ‘finely calibrated self-effacement’; on the other hand, Charlie was ‘locked into a defiant, bewildered, almost pathological modesty. He didn’t downplay his achievements so much as wish vehemently that they would go away.’
Yet both books are about men of extraordinary accomplishments, and both books are achievements in themselves. The Times, quoted on the cover of the 2003 paperback edition of View from the Summit, called it a ‘great read from a writer of remarkable ability’. Searching for Charlie is also a ‘great read’.
And it’s not just one story. In eight short pages we learn of Scott’s travels to Nepal, to the South Pole, to the UN General Assembly, to Delhi to dine with Indira Ghandi. We are told of the wartime experiences of Scott’s Northern Irish father (already the chief subject of Scott’s memoir and of his excellent stage play, The Daylight Atheist). We meet Upham as a young farmer doing his rounds at lambing time, and (implausibly) reading of the Reichstag passing the Nuremberg laws (1935) from a bit of newspaper pinned up beside the long-drop. We also learn of schoolboy war-comic fan Scott himself encountering Ken Sandford’s 1962 biography of Upham, Mark of the Lion, celebrating ‘the only combat soldier to win two VCs’—and discover how that international best-seller came about.
Some of Scott’s multiple tales are digressions, pure and simple, but most are centrally relevant to his subject. ‘Few things are more personal to a soldier than his watch,’ he writes, and proceeds to describe a certain watch’s significance for one Beau Cottrell, who went to Christ’s College with Upham and fought alongside him in North Africa. After the war Cottrell worked as a barrister with Upham’s biographer Ken Sandford, and showed Sandford a watch with ‘CHU’ on the back: Upham’s watch, which he had given Cottrell when Cottrell’s own was looted in an Axis Powers’ field hospital. Upham’s generosity was legendary.
Scott’s habit is to find links everywhere, and to make them if they are not already made. Often he is working on information given by the next generation about their parents: we are present, for instance, when Scott meets Roger Sandford, son of Ken, just as we also meet members of Upham’s family, including his daughters. It seems anyone alive who is able to answer questions willingly gives up stories and photographs. Add to these meetings the tales of soldiers who did not survive the war, and of significant Upham relatives like Lyttleton GP the late Dr Charles Hazlitt Upham (Upham’s uncle and namesake), and you begin to conclude this author can make a connection between anyone and anything to further his narrative. He can and he does, masterfully.
You might not feel able to call this history; it is, as they say, something else. Scott sets his own goals and chooses the means to reach them, charms his way—like Upham—into impossible places and reports nearly impossible things. That style perfectly fits his subject, who was known to be outrageous in a number of directions but was forgiven for it because of the good he achieved. Some of Upham’s altruism must have come from that eccentric Edwardian uncle, Dr Charles, who took his nephew on launch trips to look after lepers housed on an island in Lyttelton Harbour. Both uncle and nephew were naturally egalitarian, with what Scott calls a ‘generosity bordering on insanity’. Both turned down a knighthood, and both had funerals for which thousands came out on the streets to attest to their worth.
The combination of painstaking historical research, wit, humour and inventiveness, plus a journalist’s instinct, memory and general knowledge, is quite remarkable. Richly illustrated, the book plumbs the available sources, from the US Department of Defense to our own National Army Museum Te Mata Toa, Waiouru. Scott adds his own photographs of war-sites (El Alamein, Crete, Colditz Castle) in the countries he visited in the course of his research. His captions are usually wry asides.
Sometimes detours and byways are almost as interesting as the main road. Take, for instance, the investigation of the origins and culture surrounding the Victoria Cross itself, a medal ‘born in the muck and heartbreak of the Crimean War’, the bronze for it salvaged ‘from captured cannons, possibly from the Russians at the siege of Sebastopol or from the Chinese during the first Opium War’. Such is the status of the VC, there’s a special wing for it at London’s Imperial War Museum where Scott, of course, felt he must go. ‘To reach it from Lambeth North tube station I had to cross a no man’s-land of exposed streets in a freezing downpour and arrived drenched to the skin and chilled to the bone.’ He describes the grand building with its six pillars bordered by giant naval guns as ‘a battleship from some gilded age … scuttled in a mudflat’.
Scott’s world-sized search involves not a few battles of his own; indeed, he encourages the comparison between himself and Everyman the foot-soldier. The reason he makes it is because the famous soldier he’s seeking did the same. And he does us a service in personalising the search, the ‘pilgrimage’ he is on. In a chapter backgrounding the temporal and physical extent of the Second World War, he tries and then abandons statistics as a measure:
Previously estimated at forty million, the death toll keeps rising as secret files are declassified and construction sites on the Russian and Chinese fronts uncover mass graves. It is expected eventually to reach over sixty million. On average 27,000 people died every day for six years. That’s the equivalent of one September 11, nine times a day, for six years, and America is only now recovering from the terror that came out of the clear blue skies that crisp autumn morning in 2001.
Having brought it down to size so that it’s understandable, he goes one step further, poignantly describing the wartime experiences of his grandson Yamato’s Japanese grandfather, of his grandson Freddie’s Ukrainian grandfather and great-grandfather, of grandsons Gus and Ralph’s great-grandfathers in the Medical Corps in North Africa and in post-war Munich, and of grandson Oliver’s great-grandmother in Lithuania. He holds a magnifying glass to the enormity but makes us feel we were there, when people like us suffered the war’s atrocities, day after day.
The same magnifying glass, or sometimes a telescope, is applied to all stages of Upham’s life, from childhood and prep school to boarding school and Burnham military camp, to selection in 1939 to join the group of fifty youths preceding the First Echelon bound for training in Egypt before moving on to France. Each stage, including Upham’s post-war life and considerable fame, is matched with Scott’s experiences as he retraces his quarry’s tracks. This is not a linear narrative, just as the war itself was not a single plot with a clear beginning, middle and end.
Because of the breadth of context and variety of approaches in Scott’s telling, reports—of parades, briefings, route marches, convoys, observation planes, encampments, battles at close quarters, failures and disasters, captures, imprisonments, escapes and international strategies— become enthralling, a matter of life and death, which of course they were. And there is levity, too. As a sort of war correspondent in hindsight, the satirist survives a hair-raising journey of his own, probably because of his sense of humour. Sleeping fully clothed in a freezing no-star hotel in Crete, he suffers ‘a repeat of the nosebleed I had on an autobahn in Germany’ and wakes ‘in a room smelling like uncooked black pudding’. As he tracks the researching and writing of his book alongside Upham’s remarkable anti-Hitler campaign, the parallels humanise both author and subject.
The enemy, too, is allowed the humanity that ‘our side’ undoubtedly has, as Scott describes the disastrous invasion of Crete by German paratroopers at Maleme Airfield:
Dropped from deliberately low heights, paratroopers descending at the rate of 4 metres a second had very little time to brace and position their feet correctly to avoid being killed on impact with the ground. Some landed in irrigation ponds, rivers and the sea and drowned. Some landed in trees, leaving them trapped like flies in a web. Punctured by bullets, many chutes bled air and dropped like stones, white silk settling softly over mashed bodies like shrouds …
While important personages (Montgomery, Freyberg, King George VI, Rommel ‘The Desert Fox’ and Hitler himself) cross the stage that the author creates, I was drawn to the bit-players, since Upham, as Scott is always reminding us, thought of himself as just one of the boys. Scott’s own vulnerability becomes apparent when he describes that of soldiers in action. There’s a certain courage, too, in a comic satirist tackling such a vast subject as Scott does, dropping everything normal and familiar to follow a really great story across the world.
HELEN WATSON WHITE is a Dunedin poet, writer, photographer and critic. A judge for the Dunedin Theatre Awards, she currently reviews non-fiction books for Landfall and opera for NZ Opera News.