Author of My Son, My Son, Shabby Tiger, and Fame is the Spur
Howard Spring, born in Cardiff 1889, was perhaps the last of the great popular literary novelists of his day, and was far more popular than J.B. Priestley for instance.
He was the son of an Irish gardener, and from the age of ten went out to work to help sustain the large Spring family. He eventually ended up working for the South Wales Daily News as a messenger boy. A little while later he was able to get a job as a book reviewer for the Yorkshire Observer in Bradford, before becoming a reporter at the Manchester Guardian.
He was very much the hero of his own novels — obscurity to prominence — and served as an intelligence officer during the First World War (along with Somerset Maugham and Compton Mackenzie) with his first novel, Shabby Tiger, published to great acclaim in 1934. The rest is publishing and Hollywood history. He died in 1965.
One of his most popular novels, My Son, My Son, had earned him enough money, in 1939, to buy a house in Cornwall, for £1,750.00, not far from Falmouth where, in 1942, he wrote and published a small memoir called In The Meantime, which is a sort of catch-up and morale booster for his millions of readers suffering from the despairing depths of war.
Part of the book is given over to life aboard HMS Prince of Wales as it sped across the Atlantic to bring about the famous meeting between President Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941. He was there as a journalist (and probably an intelligence officer) to write observational pieces, and very good they are, especially when he describes the regular film shows:
“ Each night after dinner a cinema film was shown. Try to see these moments as they were. The double scuttles of the ship are closed — the inner ones black — and the curtains are drawn across them. The long mess-room is brilliantly lit. On four or five rows of chairs such officers as are not on duty are sipping their after-dinner drinks, wearing the stiff winged collars and black bows of the ceremonial evening hour. It is a whole congregation of specialists. Threading the gold lace on their cuffs are the colours that tell of their callings: the surgeons’ red, the paymasters’ white, the engineers’ purple, and the schoolmasters’ hopeful blue. In front, the screen has been put up. All is warm and bright and a little sophisticated as the mess-servants of the Royal Marines, in their white jackets, move here and there…”
Although redolent of the journalism of late Edwardian period, the writing is still wonderfully clear and precise and goes on to describe the Prince of Wales rolling through the Atlantic at speed in a zig zag pattern, with its destroyer escorts…
“…dipping through the water, taking the white waves inboard…[with the Prince of Wales] rushing forward through more than night on the Atlantic: it is rushing forward through the night of destiny, a night infested with darker dangers than any that have ever raised their filthy heads against the human spirit. These men who are sitting around you know all about it. They have seen this very room awash with blood and water…and just beyond these drawn curtains you may see a jagged hole torn by the Bismarck’s shell: the one ‘souvenir’ allowed to remain when the Prince of Wales was refitted for this her first commission since that bloody battle.”
At 9.00pm Winston Churchill entered the room with:
“ …Sir John Dill and Sir Dudley Pound…wearing dinner-jackets, smoking pipes and cigars. Everybody rises till Mr. Churchill sinks into a deep leather chair in the front row. He is chewing an extinct cigar. The performance at once begins.”
The film was Lady Hamilton, starring Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.
At the end of the film:
“Mr Churchill rose from his seat, but he did not merely say ‘Good night’ and go…[but]…turned to the officers standing there, and, after a long scrutinising affectionate pause, he said: ‘I thought this would be especially interesting to you gentlemen, many of whom have been recently engaged with the enemy in a matter of equal historic importance.’ Then he went.”
The officers remained standing in silence for a while, “…clearly touched to the quick by that simple sentence…”
Howard Spring didn’t like Lady Hamilton, thought it far too weepy, with Nelson’s wife portrayed as an evil character. He much preferred Pimpernel Smith, starring Leslie Howard, that was shown the following Wednesday.
Nothing is written about the Roosevelt/Churchill meeting, which is reasonable, considering when the book was published.
Just four months later — on the 10th of December 1941, just three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour — HMS Prince of Wales was sunk by Japanese bombers, as was HMS Repulse, in the South China Sea, with the loss of over 900 lives.