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De Gaulle

In the weeks before Christmas 2001 I have been doing research for a Radio 4 series on General de Gaulle which I am presenting in the New Year. Well, let's be honest - the producer, Neil George, has spent a lot of October and November researching Charles de Gaulle, while I have read a couple of biographies and done the interviewing that Neil wanted me to do.

(It is one of the illusions of the public that TV or radio presenters are the prime source of knowledge on the subjects they present. Occasionally there is a Michael Wood or David Attenborough who really knows his subject, or a historian like Starkie or Schama who wanders in from Academe to learn how to address a camera, but for the most part the presenter is an affable, friendly person who is careful to seem to know about the subject. Or in the case of many of the comedians now used by BBC Radio to present programmes, an affable bloke or woman who doesn't seem to know anything about it. The person who knows everything is actually the producer.)

One of the reasons I said yes, to be honest, was my ignorance. I was aware of the bare bones of de Gaulle's career, and acutely aware that I should know more, so I signed up to the programme as an act of education. For most of us, de Gaulle is one of those towering figures in twentieth century history who loom so large they are almost invisible, like the hill in the distance you take for granted. When I was at Oxford the struggle for Algerian independence was at its height, and Paul Foot was writing impassioned articles in Isis almost every week arguing that France should stop making a mess of Algeria and get out so that the Algerians could make a mess of their own country instead, which they have, brilliantly. I have to say that Foot's oratory did not spellbind me into an interest in de Gaulle and Algeria. I wasn't entirely convinced that he was hugely interested in Algeria either - I thought he was probably just practising for the Vietnam War.

I now realise that de Gaulle pulled off the most tremendous conjuring trick in extricating France from Algeria. We always have the image of de Gaulle as the stiff unbending stately figure, somewhere between Thomas a Becket and Joan of Arc, but there was a wonderfully manipulative side to him as well. He knew how to get what he wanted by a mixture of force, cajolery and patience, and trickery too. Anyone who landed in London in 1940 with not much more than a toothbrush and managed to march into Paris four years later to emerge as the new French leader (much to the displeasure of Roosevelt) was not just a figurehead carved of rock...

One of the nice things about doing a programme like this is going to see people in their own surroundings. Among the people we have been to talk to is Leonard Miall, who was in charge of the BBC studio in 1940 from which Charles de Gaulle sent out a clarion call to Frenchmen all round the world, inviting them to join him in the struggle against Hitler and, of course, Petain. Leonard lives in a wonderfully wooden and ancient house near Maidenhead, with some framed Osbert Lancasters in the loo and a New Yorker cartoon with the caption: "I married you for your money, Leonard. Where is it?". In one corner of the main room there is a small table where he and his wife Sally play bezique in the evening, next to a gilt miniature organ which they are looking after for their son. This man should be interviewed for The Oldie at once, not least because of his closeness to de Gaulle's famous broadcast, which went out on June 18 1940 and was not heard by many people. Nor was it even recorded (even then the BBC couldn't afford it) so when de Gaulle came in to do another talk Leonard suggested that he did his first one again for the recording machine and for posterity.

I got the impression that Leonard hadn't liked de Gaulle much, and nor had Anne Valery, whom we went to talk to in the French House in Soho, the so-called French pub, where de Gaulle is reputed to have written the famous broadcast. We wanted to talk to her because she could remember so well the wartime days in Soho, when as a young woman she came here and drank with the chaps. (She trained to join the SOE, but the War came to an end before she could join in. She went on to become a Rank starlet, then a TV presenter and writer.) It must have been a wonderful haven, this smoky, nicotine-stained, shouting room in the bosom of the black-out, full of French, Poles, Ukrainians and people from heaven knows where, smelling of foreign cigarettes and romance.

"We stayed open thirty minutes later than the pubs in Fitzrovia," she said, "so after 10 pm there would be a tremendous surge southwards across Oxford Street, like the Allies heading for Normandy, to get another half an hour of drinking in. Happy days."

While we were talking to her, she looked up and said, "Hi, Nick !" I looked round to see what Soho media type she was addressing and found to my astonishment it was Nick Lera, the cameraman who had been in Peru with me when we had made the film "Three Miles High" in the Great Railway Journeys series back in the 1980s. I hadn't seen him for years and years, and like all steam nuts he hadn't changed - still mad about steam railways, still clambering aboard the footplate when he could talk his way on to it, lugging his heavy camera into the tightest corners for a good shot of driving wheels... he had just come back from Kenya, where he had been celebrating the re-running of a restored steam run, with a legendary Sikh driver at the controls.

"You should see his living room back home in Mombasa," chuckled Nick. "The main wall is an exact replica of the cab of the engine he used to drive, all the original controls and everything. And when you open the firebox you find where he keeps his whisky..."

Apart from being the cameraman in Peru, Nick had also been the director of the film, so of course he knew all about every engine and I knew nothing about anything. But I was affable and charming and took care to seem to know what I was talking about, just as I still do....

"Do you have any inside information on General de Gaulle, Nick?" I asked him.

"I think you'll find that de Gaulle had little or no interest in railways " said Nick, "and I tend to return the compliment."

Fair enough.


Wed Nov 28 01 at 8.50 am