Tuesday, December 19, 2006

That’s no moon

Escape is a fixture in escapist fiction. Our heroes look sly and resourcedul when they can break out of cells, baddie bases and countries using only bits of tin can and their shoelaces.

In fact, it’s a bit of a cliché. One not uncommon criticism of my own “The Time Travellers” is that the austere detention centre on Byng Street is daringly escaped-from twice. (I argue (not entirely winningly) that this is in keeping with the spirit of Old Show.)

I guess escapology’s appeal comes from real escapes, most famously those during wars. Until recently, I’d always associated them with the second world war – and even the Imperial War Museum’s escape show last year focused on Steve McQueen’s moped and Colditz.

But Winston Churchill’s first dalliance as national hero was in 1899, when he escaped from a POW camp in Pretoria.

More recently, Neil Gaiman admitted that he and magician Penn Jillette are working on a film version of a real First World War escape. Hilary Bevan Jones – whose Endor Productions won awards for the fab “State of Play” – spoke of it, too, a few years ago:

“My big ambition is to make the film of my grandfather's book, ‘The Road to Endor’. It's a true story of how he escaped from a Turkish prison camp during the First World War. David Lean had it optioned for years, but it's back in the family again. I only just feel grown-up enough to make it now!”

Liz Hoggard, “All my own work”, The Guardian, 21 March 2004

On Gaiman’s recommendation, I sought out the book via Abe.

Lieutenant EH Jones tells of a plucky confidence trick, played out over more than a year. As much from boredom as anything, the imprisoned Jones fakes a Ouija board session, and pretends he’s in touch with the spirits.

But rather than making his comrades laugh, they start to take him in deadly earnest. Jones, you see, can remember the board even blindfolded…

"The growth of a belief is difficult to describe, for growth is not a matter of adding one piece here and another there. It is not an addition at all, it is a process; and the most that can be done in describing it is to state a few of the outstanding events and say, ‘this marks one stage in the process, that another.’ … In any investigation each point as it is reached is subjected to proof. Once passed as proved it forms in its turn part of the foundation for a further advance in belief. It is the part of the investigator to make certain he does not admit as correct a single false deduction. If he does the whole of his subsequent reasoning is liable to be affected.

It is particularly easy, in a question like spiritualism, to allow fallacy to creep in. There is a basis of curious phenomena which certainly exist and are recognised by scientists as indubitable facts. But the investigator must be careful, in every instance, to assure himself that he is in the presence of the genuine phenomenon, and not of an imitation of it, and, as a matter of fact, this is sometimes impossible to do."

EH Jones, "The Road to En-Dor", p. 23.

Soon the Turkish warders have been snared in the scam, Jones and partner Lieutenant Hill winning small allowances for the other POWs. The camp itself is the former home of now-missing Armenians – the book speaks of the massacre quite openly. So Jones uses the promise of hidden Armenian treasure, and the threat of the spirits’ revenge, to attempt a brilliant escape.

Eric Williams (who wrote the best-selling “The Wooden Horse”) introduces the whole thing as, “for sheer ingenuity, persistence and skill … second to none among such books”.

It’s certainly a funny book, lively book full of vivid characters and set-ups. I was also surprised in the footnotes by how many of those comrades mentioned tried their own escapes – and went on to write their own books about them.

The mechanics of the trick and the ways they fool doubters are explained in some detail, and I can see the appeal to a mage like Jillette. The plan does not all go swimmingly either, and several times nearly kills the two tricksters. As a result, it becomes less about the scam but the steely determination with which the two blokes see it through.

That said, the telling is often disjointed narrative, jumping back and forth between years and incidents, so sometimes not easy to follow. There’s a hell of a lot of place names and people to remember, and the tangents and asides could have been more effectively edited.

Part conman’s handbook, part military history, part pot-boiling shocker, it’s a compelling – if not always easy – read. And cor, there’s a brilliant movie in there. So do get a shift on with that, Neil.

No comments: