A RUMMAGE through second hand books can often produce unexpected gems – such as the discovery of two courageous women from the First World War and a 36-year-old message from one of the original cast of The Goon Show, writes Brian Thomas.
Being an ex-librarian and a bit of a bibliophile, or just an ordinary reader of great books, I always gravitate to market stalls, charity shops and trestle tables at fetes looking for that special volume – something attractive, engaging and afforded with some special provenance.
These searches, amongst other great finds, recently brought me closer to one of the original Goons as well as a pair of ladies whose sheer guts in the First World War saved the lives of many allied soldiers through their aid station perched on the edge of enemy lines near Ypres.
These rally-racing ladies, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, met at a Bournemouth motor cycle club in the early part of the last century but volunteered their way on to the Western Front in 1914 driving ambulances.
When wounded men began dying of shock before they could reach a military hospital, the duo set up their own first aid post 100 yards from the Front, in Pervyse village, close to Ypres, to tend to their charges immediately.
Here they were constantly shelled or shot at by snipers, and during lulls in combat would return to the UK and tour the country in a motorbike and sidecar to raise funds for their post, from which they were eventually evacuated in the spring of 1918. The only women to nurse on the front line in the First World War, they subsequently received 17 medals for bravery and self-sacrifice.
Their heroic story was told by writer and historian Diane Atkinson in the book Elsie and Mairi Go To War: Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front, published by Preface in 2009.
I found this book on a Newton Abbot market stall and inside it was a 2009 letter from the author to a Kingsteignton resident, who had presumably bought the book at the time, asking for her support for the proposed commissioning of a bronze statue of the pair of ‘angels’ to be erected ‘in Whitehall or on the Embankment.’
She wrote: ‘Elsie and Mairi were not paid for the work they did in Belgium. They spent their savings and sold their beloved motorbikes to keep their first aid post open to patch up Belgian soldiers. They lived close to death and in extreme danger for nearly four years and would have still been at the post until the end of the war if they had not almost been killed by arsenic gas…’ Witness a courage that shows up the callousness of many politicians and military officers who allowed the whole 1914-18 campaign to turn to such terrible carnage.
Following her announcement Dr Atkinson teamed up with a representative of the Flemish Parliament and this special sculpture was successfully funded, created and unveiled in Pervyse in 2014 where it stands on the main route through the village and depicts the duo surrounded by sandbags. The tale is extraordinary and I can wholeheartedly recommend the book.
As for that other Goon, he was Michael Bentine, and I found his novel ‘The Condor and the Cross, An Adventure Novel of the Conquistadors’ on the same market stall a couple of years back. As Bentine was born of a Peruvian father, it seemed an appropriate subject for the writer, actor, comedian and former RAF intelligence officer to tackle.
This copy was autographed ‘To Pat with much love, Michael Bentine 87’, and included a loose postcard-size photograph of Palm Springs – where Bentine and his wife spent their winters from 1975-1996 – with a handwritten note on the back, presumably to the mystery dedicatee Pat’s husband and in the same spidery hand.
This read: ‘My dear old Joe, tonight we are with Jan and as usual laughing our heads off. He certainly has written an absorbing book. As I told him, all he needs is an American editor to just give it the Yankee flavour. Once again, congratulations – heart-felt – your efforts should have been rewarded long ago. Love to Pat, et al, as ever Michael.’
I have no idea who Pat and Joe are/were, or if that ‘absorbing’ book was ever published. But the comments bring to life the man who was ‘the fourth Goon’ in the first two series of the classic post-war radio comedy The Goon Show alongside Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers and whose role is often forgotten through the passage of time as being an early key member of that unique team that created an hilarious and surreal programme that helped chang the face of comedy forever.