It was an odd beginning to writing World War II books, all things considered. Out of the blue in February 2000, I received a phone call at the Sydney Morning Herald from a bloke I’d never met.
‘My name is Jim Cowley,’ he said. ‘I’m a pharmacist from Port Macquarie, I’m a rugby bloke, and I’m looking after Nancy Wake, the most decorated heroine of the Second World War. Mate, she wants go back to France to die among the partisans she fought with over there. She’s got no money, so you’re going to have to write a book, so she can get that money.’
I sat up straight in my seat. ‘Jim, I am not the Salvation Army. I do not write books for charity. However —’
However, I decided I would like to meet her. It would be a good story for the Herald’s Anzac Day edition, and besides, I had heard of Nancy Wake, aka ‘The White Mouse’, when I had lived in France for four years playing rugby. Within a fortnight I was knocking on Nancy’s door. We sat down at noon and started to chat.
Just under three hours later I was back at the airport, and my first call was not to the Herald, but to my publisher, Alison Urquhart, at HarperCollins.
‘I have just met an extraordinary woman,’ I said, ‘and I want to write a book on her. I can have the manuscript ready in about a year. Cancel that other book I was going to do.’
On the spot, Alison—excited that I was excited—agreed, offered me a purely nominal advance, and the deal was done. My reasoning was plain. Though it was obvious to me that the book wouldn’t sell well—I was sure most of Australia had never heard of Nancy Wake— I felt it was a cracking yarn, it would demonstrate that I could write beyond sport and politics, and it would please the spirits of my late parents, both of whom had fought in World War II.
The book was launched in June 2001, and within a week the first printrun had sold out. Another seven printruns were gone by the end of the year. One hundred and fifty thousand copies later, it was obvious to me, the publishers and Nancy herself that there was a huge interest in Australian war stories.
On the strength of that interest, I was asked by Hachette Livre to write on Kokoda. Again, I knew very little about that campaign, but I began my research and was stunned at what an amazing story it was. By then I had become convinced that the way to write non-fiction was to use the devices and disciplines of fiction, to make the narrative feel like a novel, but make it absolutely true. In my view, that was the best way for the wider reading public to get into what really occurred on the Kokoda Track. Two hundred and fifty thousand sales later, that view was vindicated.
And so, too, with Tobruk. I was all but ignorant of what had happened there, even though my father had fought in the Allied campaign of El Alamein—but again, I was stunned at how fantastic the real events of Tobruk were, and so devoted myself to the story part of history.
As for Nancy Wake, with whom this all began: she is now ninety-seven years old and living in the Royal Star & Garter Home in London, which is devoted to caring for aged and distinguished military veterans. I visit Nancy every year and can report that she is generally doing well and is happy.
Though she is now bed-ridden, the heart which never quavered in the face of danger is still beating strongly, and she derives enjoyment from each day, frequently reading letters from admirers around the world, and receiving visitors.
I suppose when she gets to 100 years old she will receive a letter from the Queen, but so indomitable and unstoppable does Nancy still seem, it wouldn't surprise me if the Queen gets a letter from Nancy when she turns 100!
| on 16 December 2011 ,22:10 |
One more story about WW2 Peter is the 'forgotten heroes of bomber command". They were labeled the politically incorrect fighters of WW2 even though 55,000 of them made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom we enjoy today. High in the honor list of that great but ignored command was the Australian 460 squadron of Lancasters whose air crew was wiped out five time over. My dad was a pilot on that squadron and has penned the following collection http://knol.google.com/k/460-squadron-collection
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