My Interview with Simon Pearson, author of ‘The Great Escaper’

Posted by On Sep 18, 2013 In Uncategorized

Q1-In your finest ’3rd person voice,’ who is Simon Pearson?

What a difficult question to answer. Who am I?

Simon Pearson is a 56-year-old journalist who has worked for The Times in London for most of the past 30 years.

He lives with his wife, Fiona, and their three boys, Harold, Fred and Archie, in a semi-detached Victorian house in West Norwood, south London. Lying as it does between the far better-known districts of Brixton and Dulwich, they happily refer to it as “West Nowhere”.

By English standards, it is a long way from Simon’s roots in Nottinghamshire, where he was born and brought up in the mining town of Warsop, not far from Robin Hood’s redoubt in Sherwood Forest.  Another “Great Escaper!”

Warsop is not exactly a hotbed of journalism, but a neighbour’s son, Peter Gregson, joined the Reuter news agency when Simon was a boy. Peter covered the wars in Biafra and Vietnam, became Peking correspondent, covering Nixon’s meeting with Mao, and was Washington correspondent during the Carter years.  Peter was Simon’s inspiration.

After being sent to boarding school at the age of 10, and studying journalism in Sheffield, Pearson joined his local paper, the Mansfield Chronicle Advertiser, as a reporter.

Four years later he joined the Sheffield Morning Telegraph as a sports reporter, covering football, golf and gymnastics, as well as helping to edit the sports pages. In 1983, he left to become a sub-editor on the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and, over the next four years, worked in China, Australia and New Zealand.

He worked his first shift on The Times in late 1986 and joined the staff a year later, remaining until 1998. He has worked in various roles for The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph, but has spent the past 15 years as Night Editor of The Times, one of a handful of executives who edit the paper in the absence of the Editor.

Since addressing the Royal Society on the question of science and the media in 2002, he has sat on the board of the Science and Media Centre at the Wellcome Trust. He is a trustee of the Spires charity for the homeless in Streatham and was, until recently, a governor of Abbotsholme School in Staffordshire.

Apart from his family, his greatest interest remains military history – and particularly the RAF during the Second World War. While the house in “West Nowhere” is not quite an extension of the Imperial War Museum, it sometimes feels like it.

Over the past two years, Fiona has sometimes felt there have been two men in her marriage, Simon and Roger Bushell, and the boys have sometimes felt part of single-parent family, with Fi keeping everything together.  While everyone enjoyed the book signing, they’re pretty relieved that The Great Escaper is completed and life is returning to a version of normal.  Indeed, the lawn has been cut for the first time in 18 months and the house is beginning to feel like a home again – and Simon has found time once again to watch the boys play water polo and rugby.

What compelled you to write this book?  What attracted you to Roger Bushell?  From start to finish, how long did it take you to write ‘The Great Escaper’ ?

Two things compelled me to write the story of Roger Bushell’s life.  The first was a conviction that Bushell’s achievements had not been properly recognised. I was determined to try to put that right.

The second was a conviction that this was a truly great story and that it would make a good book. Whatever else happened in my life, I felt this was my chance to become an author as well as a journalist.

I still don’t understand why, nearly 70 years after his death, no one had published a biography of Roger Bushell long ago.

I first came across  Bushell in 1963 or 1964 when my father, Geoff, who had served with the RAF during the Second World War, took me to the cinema in Mansfield, the nearest big town to Warsop, to see the Hollywood film of The Great Escape.  As with many boys of my age, the film captured my imagination in a way that none other had done. Some time later my father bought me Paul Brickhill’s book, which describes Bushell’s background as a barrister and international skier and his experience with the Czech family in Prague during his second escape of the war. Who were they?

Bushell became my hero – and I wanted to know more about him.

My father continued flying after the war, but as a hobby, from Tollerton aerodrome near Nottingham. Several wartime pilots visited Tollerton. Among them was Brian Kingcome who had flown with Bushell in 92 Squadron in 1940. I was introduced to him. My father also took me to Biggin Hill, where Bushell had been based at the start of the war. The story became something of a quest.

How long did it take to write The Great Escaper? Ha! About 50 years!

Q3 There are many books on the subject of The Great Escape, what new information did you dig up on Bushell?

You’re right, there are many, many books on the Great Escape – and Bushell appears in cameo roles in many of them, with bigger roles in some such as “Wings Day” by Sydney Smith – but no one had told the story of his life.

The key to this was the family’s archive, which contains his mother’s journal, many letters, particularly those written to his parents while he was in captivity, newspaper clippings and other assorted material.

None of this would been made available to me were it not for your endeavours, John, and as such you opened the door for all of us who wanted to know more about Roger Bushell.

But the archive does not tell the story. It tells some of the story. More importantly, it provides the signposts to other research. The film For Which I Am Prepared to Die, by Roger Bushell’s niece Lindy Wilson, also supplies a great deal of information through her interviews with key players and points the way to further research.

It was clear from early on that Roger Bushell loved women and that women loved him and that the story of The Great Escape could not be told without trying to understand the nature of his relationships.

I think I uncovered a lot of material about the three women – Peggy Hamilton, Georgiana Curzon and Blazena Zeithammelova – who all played significant roles in his war.

Georgie’story came alive through the columns of The Times’ archive and letters in the National Archive – as well as Lindy Wilson’s strong recollections. Lindy’s interview with Vlasta Zafouk provided a lot of material on Blazena but there was a great deal of material to be found about her in archives in Prague and also about Bushell’s experience during the months he spent in the Czech capital. In many ways, Peggy Hamilton remained the greatest enigma – but much has come to light since “The Great Escaper” was published and I would hope to update the manuscript for the paperback.

I don’t believe anyone had previously established the nature of Bushell’s relationship with British Intelligence. The secret papers on the history of Dulag Luft, which rest in the National Archive, make this clear.

I stepped very carefully in this area, seeking advice from senior figures in the RAF and British intelligence, but it is clear that Bushell played a significant role in this area.

I believe I also established that the Zeithammel family were important players in the Czech resistance at the time of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich – and I would love to nail down precisely what Bushell was up to when he was lying low in the city.

As for his early life, I think I was able to provide a lot of new material about his school days – many of the Wellington College reports had not been seen since Bushell’s death – as well as insights into his relationships with the aristocrat Tony Knebworth, who was a decisive influence, and the head of his legal chambers, G.D. ‘Khaki’ Roberts.

A lawyer, linguist, international skier, fighter pilot and “spy” who was loved by aristocratic women -  there was a lot of material to look at from many aspects of his life, but if you were prepared to “dig”, there was plenty of new material to be found.

Q4 Would you describe some of the challenges you faced in trying to tell Bushell’s story?  Either in researching him, travel, work/life balance, etc?

I faced two significant problems.

In respect of most aspects of Roger Bushell’s life, people were only too happy to talk, whether they were members of 601 or 92 squadrons, former prisoners, or working in many of the archives I visited. People were, and still are, fascinated by his life. But the families of two of the women in his life – Georgiana Curzon and Peggy Hamilton – were not prepared to talk. I would very much like to have had conversations with Peggy’s son, Lord Petre, or Georgiana’s son, Glen Kidston. But perhaps it is not surprising. Georgiana divorced Home Kidston in scandalous circumstances – though not of her own making. Peggy Hamilton’s behaviour is open to question.

The second problem was more prosaic – trying to balance research and writing with keeping on top of a senior job at The Times. The real sacrifices were made by my family, while I spent as much time as I could working on the book. Thankfully, Fi kept the show on the road …

Q5 Would you be so kind and allow me to re-print your favorite block of writing in the book?  What part of your book do you like best?

Yes, of course. I’d be thrilled for you to reprint sections on your website – but I need to ensure that my publisher is happy first.

There are three paragraphs in the book of which I’m particularly proud. The first is the last paragraph of the Prologue:

“This is the story of Roger Bushell, a young man bent on the pursuit of pleasure and excitement who emerged as a war hero – a somewhat flawed hero perhaps – but a war hero nonetheless, who was loved by many people, men and women alike. His story deserves to be told.”

The second comes at the end of the Czech saga in the chapter entitled “Love and Betrayal”.

“Among the Czech patriots who died with the Zeithammels that evening was Josef Masin, one of the Three Kings, who had been arrested more than a year before, and other members of his group. Just before he was killed, Masin committed one last act of defiance, standing to attention, and shouting, ‘Long live the Czech Republic!’ It probably gave them all a sense of courage, perhaps even, as they faced their executioners, a belief that their sacrifices would not be in vain.”

The third is a description of Stalag Luft III in the chapter entitled “Big X”.

“No rivers or mountains here to conjure dreams; no farms nor fields; no steeples or spires. Just the seemingly endless forest, stretching outward and upward, rich in vegetation and wildlife, but a straitjacket for a man’s soul.”

The passages I enjoyed writing most are in Chaper One – “The Great Escape”, which sets up the story of his life and are full of hope.

Q6 I have to say, we have become friends when we discovered both of us were writing about Bushell.  I have enjoyed our e-mail correspondence enormously (it goes back over 2 years).  I am looking forward to meeting you and your family in London this October. We have joked several times that ‘The Great Escape’ was partly about ‘shagging’.  Would you please expand on that?  Also, please describe Lady Georgie Curzon and her relationship to Bushell?

I hesitate to repeat the phrase “shagging”, which was first used by me in an email conversation with you in 2011 as two “good old boys” danced around the story and dreamt of cocktails with Roger Bushell on Fire Island, New York.

“Shagging” was undoubtedly something that loomed large in the minds of the prisoners of Stalag Luft III simply because of its abject unavailability. I’m sure it was something very close to Roger’s heart. But it’s the wrong word in Roger’s case.  I don’t think he thought of sex in terms of just “shagging”. He wasn’t a womaniser in a perjorative sense; I think he was a genuine romantic who loved women – and women loved him. He led a highly sexual life but I suspect he was a kind man, a gentle, but perhaps exciting lover – and romance was his Achilles’ heel.

As for Georgiana Curzon, she clearly loved him and the feeling was reciprocated. They should have married in 1935 – and they would have undoubtedly married had he survived the war. Her memorial notices in The Times long after his death are testimony to her feelings. Would Bushell have heeded the warnings of his colleagues in Stalag Luft III and not taken part in the Great Escape had it not been for his desire to get back to Georgie?  I don’t think so.

I feel sure that there is more to know about this relationship, but the story of Georgiana’s life is the great tragedy of this drama.

The photograph of the two of them in the summer of 1935 makes one thing abundantly clear – they were passionate about each other.

 Q7 I see you will be speaking at the Imperial War Museum on your book this October.  Have you given some thought on what you are going to say at that event?  Also, what events will you be doing over the next few months to publicize your book?

The theme of the Churchill lectures at the Imperial War Museum this autumn is “Intelligence” so I will focus on this aspect of “Bushell’s War” and the role he played. Bushell was head of military intelligence in the North Compound of Stalag Luft III as he had been at Dulag Luft. The prisoners used coded letters to supply London with information about the VI and V2 rockets being developed at Peenemunde – and the RAF hit the factories just a few weeks later in one of the RAF’s few precision night raids of the war – as well as information on German deployments, industrial performance and military targets. It was a significant contribution to the war effort.

But I will also tell the story of Bushell’s life, with the intelligence story at the heart of the lecture.

I am extraordinarily lucky. There has been a great deal of interest in this story and the book has received far more publicity than I could ever have hoped. The historian Max Hastings gave it an extraordinarily favourable review in The Sunday Times. I’ve done a couple of interviews with BBC radio and with radio stations in Australia and New Zealand.

In October, I’m speaking at literary festivals in Cheltenham, which is sponsored by The Times, Henley, Appledore and Guildford, which is all very exciting, as well as at Bushell’s old school – Wellington College.

Q8 Any ideas for your next book?

I would love to write another book – but as to the subject matter, that would be telling…

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