Posted by: billpurdue | January 24, 2013

Another ‘forgotten gem’

If you have been reading this blog for some considerable time (and if you have, many thanks for sticking with me) you may remember that some time ago I found a novel by a mainly forgotten author which I really enjoyed and declared that I had found a ‘forgotten gem’. That book was ‘Deliverance ‘ by L A G Strong ( which has no connection with the film “Deliverance”). Now I think I’ve found another.


Green and Pleasant Land by Dudley Barker is set in the 1950s when Britain was just beginning to recover from the war. The story is centred around the building of a new steel plant in a North East coastal town. The massive plant is to be built right by the sea and is to be financed by a combination of private and government money. At first it seems to be a typical novel of the early 1950s with rather stereotypical characters, but most of these characters are well developed and the course of the tale is not predictable.


There’s the local impoverished country squire who lives at a minor stately home just outside the town and who is very much against the project. Amongst the construction workers there is the union leader who is a member of the Communist Party, who brings the workforce out on strike: one of the workers is threatened with the sack after being accused of rape, but is cleared of the charge, but there is doubt about whether he will get his job back. Most of the private money for the steel mill is from Sir Russell Gazzard, one of the ‘nouveau riche’ who takes over a manor house in the locality and persuades his privately educated son to woo the daughter of the country squire, because he thinks it’s a good idea to marry into aristocracy.


Perhaps the book didn’t start too well, but it soon got better due to a wealth of characters and a large number of twists and turns in the story, with the outcome difficult to foresee. I feel I can now claim to have found my second “forgotten gem” and if you’d like to read it too, it’s available from online second hand booksellers at prices starting at  less than a pound plus postage – or you could try one of the many second hand bookshops.


Dudley Barker appears to have no Wikipedia article about him, which is unusual. I managed to find him on Bookrags, but it wasn’t certain that I had the right man. He apparently wrote crime novels under the pseudonym Lionel Black, but I can’t be sure that I’ve got my facts right.


Bears and World War II


Stories of the war (fiction or non-fiction) are not normally my cup of tea, but I made an exception when I read Wojtek, the Bear: Polish War Hero by Aileen Orr. When a contingent of Polish soldiers met a starving boy in Iran in 1942, carrying a sack in which something appeared to be moving, they wanted to help him and they were curious about the sack.

The sack contained a bear cub and the soldiers clubbed together to buy the bear from the boy. If they had not done so, the bear would most likely have ended up as a dancing bear from which someone would try to make a living. The soldiers named the bear Wojtek (Polish Woiciech, meaning happy warrior/soldier) and Peter, a non commissioned officer was put in charge of him. Now cuddly bear cubs are all very well, but they grow up into very large animals which can be very ferocious. This was not the case with Wojtek; he grew up all right, being well looked after, but he turned out to have a very friendly nature. He eventually became officially a member of the regiment, grew accustomed to the loud noises of warfare and even helped the soldiers to deliver weapons, which was this contingent’s role during the course of the war. Wojtek became ‘one of the lads’ as it were and seemed to understand the moods of his comrades, sitting quietly by a soldier if he received a sad letter from home. He was also partial to a bottle of beer – or two!


After the war, the contingent of soldiers moved to a special camp in Scotland and Wojtek came with them and got to know many of the local people. Gradually the soldiers left the camp to either go back to Poland and a very uncertain future or settle down to civilian life in Scotland. But what to do with Wojtek? Unfortunately for Peter, his handler, the only course of action was to take him to Edinburgh Zoo and he would have to sever his ties.


That story only takes up about half of the book, a further 20 pages being devoted to the recent fund raising efforts to get a memorial for Wojtek, a truly remarkable bear. The last 40 pages are taken up with an epilogue by Neal Ascherson which puts the events surrounding Wojtek into a wider historical context and explains the plight of the Polish people before, during and after the war.

[Birlinn £7.99 9781843410577 , 8 pages of photographs]


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