Ducking and Dodging

R.W. Johnson

  • Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre
    Bloomsbury, 372 pp, £14.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 7475 8794 1

In December 1940, Ben Macintyre’s anti-hero, Eddie Chapman, was in jail in Jersey – he already had a long record, including everything from safe-breaking to blackmail – when the Nazi occupiers threw a young hotel dishwasher, Tony Faramus, into the same jail; Faramus became Chapman’s cellmate and friend. At Chapman’s suggestion they both offered to spy for the Germans, essentially as a way of getting themselves out of jail and away from Jersey. Faramus, a small-time operator guilty only of obtaining £9 under false pretences and being in possession of an anti-Nazi leaflet, looked up to the older and more experienced Chapman. It did him no good: while Chapman was recruited into a purple career as Nazi spy and then double agent, Faramus was sent to Buchenwald and later to Mauthausen, where he was starved, beaten and worked almost to death through a succession of illnesses; he lost a lung and seven ribs. After the war he became a film extra, playing a starved-looking prisoner in The Colditz Story, and ended up as Clark Gable’s butler in Hollywood. Macintyre says he got the idea for his book from reading Chapman’s obituary (he died, aged 83, in 1997), but he might just as easily have made Faramus the central character.

Chapman was patriotic in an Arthur Daley sort of way, willing to rally to the cause but always on the qui vive for dodgy little earners, a theft here, a con trick there. He was unfaithful to any number of women, robbed people he was quite fond of and, although he formed an enduring friendship with Stephan von Gröning, his charmingly aristocratic German spymaster, he also systematically double-crossed him, in a way that would probably have cost von Gröning his life had Chapman been found out. Yet Chapman was lastingly loyal to Faramus and kept trying to do his best for him throughout the war; in this uneducated little chancer he must have seen an echo of himself.

Macintyre makes much of what an accomplished, guilt-free and amoral rogue Chapman was, as well as being physically very strong and apparently irresistible to women. But what Macintyre leaves out of his account, oddly, is the Depression, which is mentioned only once in passing. Chapman was the son of a drunken publican from the Durham coalfields, and grew up in a world that was coming apart around him. He was 17 in 1931 as unemployment went through the roof. There was nothing he could rely on or believe in: the Great War had destroyed popular confidence in the establishment and deference towards it; the labour movement was at sixes and sevens; he was too cynical for religion and his family was hopeless. Doubtless, a miner or a railwayman could feel supported by a strong working-class culture, but this was not the situation for most. Anyone who has learned about these years by talking to working-class people who had to survive them (rather than by relying on the writings of the Old Etonian George Orwell) knows that even for those who weren’t permanently unemployed it was a desperate business of one short-lived job after another – a bouncer this week, a bottle-washer next week – and of ducking and dodging, a great deal of it at or beyond the margins of the law. Survivors like Chapman learned to live on their wits. They had continually to remake their plans and allegiances, and to have no regrets. It was a period that produced many Eddie Chapmans, and even more Tony Faramuses.

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