Book review: Black Camp 21, by Bill Jones

Bill Jones at Cultybraggan
Bill Jones at Cultybraggan
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Bill Jones is the award-winning author of two fine non-fiction books, skilfully crafted biographies of the long distance runner Bill Tarrant and the figure-skater John Curry. Intriguingly his new book is a novel, taking as its theme the tens of thousands of German prisoners of war who were kept in large camps in the UK after D-Day in 1944.

Its plot grows from the complex mix of these PoWs, some still committed Nazis, others just wanting a quiet life whatever the war’s outcome, and the tensions which emerge after interrogations (both by the British authorities and amongst the PoWs themselves) and during escape attempts.

The story is centred on real events and on characters who really existed, including a PoW murder victim and the five PoWs who in 1945 were hanged at Pentonville for killing him, so this is a historical novel, and herein lie a number of problems, particularly the amount of exposition that is required regarding what happened. We don’t get to Cultybraggan Camp in Comrie – Black Camp 21 – until page 309. Should the novel have a different title?

There are a number of errors and odd assumptions, too. For example, there are regular references to the “SS” early on, without indicating whether or not this is the “Waffen SS”. It probably is, but this needs saying. The Panzer divisions of this force were particularly disciplined and would have adhered to giving only “name, rank and number”, so the amount of backstory that has to be told via questioning by the authorities is unrealistic.

The dialogue, too, is often cumbersome, and a number of errors have slipped through the editing. Surely German PoWs would not have imagined their Polish guards wanting to get home to Wroclaw and Poznan – cities they regarded as German (which they were in 1944), and knew as Breslau and Posen.

Although the characters, including his main, invented character, Max Hartmann, are two-dimensional, Bill Jones does treat them and their predicament with compassion, and there are passages of good writing, such as when Hartmann is in the notorious London Cage undergoing interrogation, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement.

The end of the novel is contrived and sentimental, but it is not the end of the book because Jones then provides an “Author’s Note”, a memoir almost, in which he discusses the novel’s genesis.

This is a fine, deeply felt piece of writing, and it made me want to read more of his work, although perhaps not another novel. - Vin Arthey

Black Camp 21, by Bill Jones, Polygon, £8.99