Searching for Charlie by Tom Scott
I predict this book is going to become a best seller. It is a very easy read, written in an unusual form. Unusual to biography readers, that is. It is rare for historical biographies to be presented in this form, but this fictionalised edition of the life and exploits of Charles Upham VC makes interesting reading and is well researched.
The mystery of how a reserved modest, slightly built farm valuer from Canterbury came to be a world-renowned hero in battle has intrigued Tom Scott since he was a schoolboy.
He was further prompted by comments from youngsters of today, “I like those world war eleven movies!” [WW II]. Scott saw a knowledge gap where today’s youth know little about World War Two and showed a lack of understanding of the sacrifices made by earlier generations.
The method of writing chosen by Tom Scott draws on his talent for writing scripts for plays and for television and film. It brings immediacy to the tale, which unfolds as a true and accurate biography. Upham’s deeds are the stuff of Marvel comics, at times unbelievable, framed for schoolboys to wonder at. Fellow soldiers would just shake their heads. But the deeds were true and are well documented.
Scott outlines the life of Charles Hazlitt Upham VC and Bar, who appears larger than life, but he was a modest everyday kiwi bloke who did outstanding deeds at a time when outrageous behaviour was required. After admiring Upham for many years, Tom Scott sought to source the courage and identify the character of this hero from the Second World War. However, it is difficult to define inherent courage and integrity. Some individuals rise to an occasion while others crumble under pressure.
This story unfolds in chronological order as Scott outlines the family history and moves on to Upham’s education and years at boarding school and time at Lincoln College. The book reads as easily as watching a movie unfold. Fiction and fact are cleverly interwoven.
While boarding at Christ's College, Upham developed resilience and self-determination. He helped his uncle Dr C.H. Upham as he treated leprosy patients, learning humility and compassion. Charlie Upham grew into a staunch young man with integrity. Tom Scott uses his imagination and excellent skill with dialogue to create comprehensive vignettes depicting scenes with Upham as the central figure. The essence of the boy is unveiled through his developing years: he was not always popular, but able to hold his own in any situation.
Captain Charles Upham is the only combat soldier ever to win the Victoria Cross twice. He abhorred the pomp and ceremony which followed the first award, insisting it should be awarded to his men who fought beside him. He credited his Sergeant David Kirk with the equal courage at Maleme and said the same about the break out at Minqar Qaim. There were jobs to be done and they were carried out by his men. Upham was a modest, reserved, resilient man who saw nothing special about himself. His moral integrity was strong and he did not suffer fools lightly regardless of their rank. This was a mark of the average New Zealand soldier who spoke up when it suited him regardless of rank.
The author has endeavoured to expose the source of Upham’s ferocity in battle and his bravery in action as he traced the soldier’s movements around the battlefields. The cartoonist humour slips in from time to time. When driving down a six-lane highway in Egypt, Scott asked the guide about the black bags lying at intervals near the roadside. “Emergency petrol for cars that run out on their journey” was the answer. A cryptic aside: How Rommel would have loved THAT! His quips are Kiwi, the vernacular ours, the understanding sharp.
The book parallels troops movements with the author’s own travels as he journeys across the world. Tom Scott went on a pilgrimage to old battlegrounds, imagining Charlie Upham in the settings in Greece, Crete Egypt and later in Germany where Upham was a prisoner of war in Weinberg and in Colditz Castle. Scott viewed the battlefields with a different eye, imagining the reckless and horrific charge at Galatas and the aftermath in Crete.
Tom Scott stood on the hills, imagining the battle action, to draw an honest image of a man under pressure of battle. He outlines the reserve of the trooper hating the notoriety brought by the first Victoria Cross award, and highlights the ignominy of being a prisoner of war. Upham really resented the second award and disliked the attention it brought. The awards also changed the nature of the man as he became more reserved, and irritable.
Scott displays sincerity throughout his work. His empathy for his subject is evident in every word. He recreates the world from Upham’s view as strongly as he can. It is an honest appraisal because Upham’s outbursts of temper and his taciturn unpredictability are not forgotten. The man was not liked by everyone, but his men revered him. On his death, the enemy Africa Korps paid him an extraordinary compliment by placing a notice in the Christchurch Press saluting him as “one of the bravest soldiers”.
Tom Scott searched every avenue to give a true picture of the events during the war in North Africa and on Crete. He profiles the Upham family, the fate of Upham’s medals in recent times, and leaves no stone unturned as he researches widely to uncover material about this famous, reticent man. He conducted many interviews, and searched for previously undisclosed material in exhaustive research. Scott spoke to those who knew Upham and liked him, as well as those who found the man blunt and short-tempered. The only other biography is The Mark of a Lion by Kenneth Sandford which was written with very reluctant agreement of Charles Upham.
Some readers may decry the simple bibliography and absence of source endnotes and lack of an index for references to verify the facts, but Scott has placed these clearly within the text. All sources are clearly given within the context of the passages without disturbing the reader’s concentration.
Tom Scott has made an excellent contribution to the history of one of New Zealand’s heroes. His heartfelt comment looking over the graves of the fallen on Crete outlines his sincerity in writing this book. “The ones that could be identified were younger than my own sons. And always will be.” As Upham would have preferred, the story is about the men as well.
A great read for all ages.
Reviewed by Sonia Edwards