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Spy Princess - Shrabani Basu

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Paperback: 288 pages / Publisher: The History Press / Published: 30 Aug 2008

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      22.01.2013 11:39
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      Britain's only Muslim woman heroine from World War Two

      ~A Life Lived Large~

      In November 2012 a statue was unveiled in Gordon Square, London to a woman of whom I had never heard. I'm prone to letting the news wash over me and to filter out a lot of what's not directly interesting to me but something about this story made me stop and pay attention. The woman commemorated by the statue was Noor Inayat Khan G.C, MBE, Croix de Guerre - also known as Nora Baker - and she had been the first woman wireless operator to be dropped into France in the Second World War by the secretive Special Operations Executive (SOE). She worked under extreme danger to transmit crucial messages back to the British during the German occupation of France. It's hard for us today when we've got constant access to the internet and mobile phones to understand just how important it was 70 years ago to be able to send coded messages by wireless signals and how difficult it was to do so given the technology of the time.

      The statue which was unveiled by Princess Anne celebrated her status as Britain's only female Muslim war hero and she was apparently the first Asian woman ever to be commemorated with such an individual memorial. As I listened to the news about Noor's statue on the evening news one particular fact caught my attention - that she was a direct descendent of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore. I'm fascinated by Indian history and by all things relating to the remarkable Tipu Sultan so I wanted to know more about Noor. When a biography of her came up on one of Amazon's special deals, I snapped it up.

      ~A Life in Print~

      'Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan' by Shrabani Basu aims to celebrate the story of Noor's amazing life and bravery to a readership who know little about what life was like undercover in occupied France. If you are of the right age to remember the TV series 'Allo Allo' you probably share the national idea that working with the resistance was all about running around with captured airmen looking for a way to smuggle the 'Madonna with the Big Boobies' out of the country whilst avoiding the attentions of a leather coated Gestapo man. 'Spy Princess' shows a much more dangerous and entirely unamusing picture of how things really were. It's clear that the author is somewhat in awe of her subject and keen to ensure that this undercover heroine is brought out from the secret files and into public view.

      Noor was an unlikely candidate for life as a spy. She was born in Moscow on New Year's Day 1914 to an Indian father and an American mother. Her father was the leader of a group of Sufi Muslims and he travelled around Europe with his family building a following for his beliefs and his philosophy. Sufis are opposed to violence and her father was a supporter of Gandhi's principles of peaceful protest. Whilst the family were not exactly well-to-do, they had many wealthy and influential friends. Noor loved to write poetry, play music and write children's stories and she studied for qualifications in child psychology at a Paris university before the dangers of a German advance became apparent and the family fled to England. Noor had no particular reason to support the British in the war and even in her interview with the SOE she admitted that after the war she planned to return to India and campaign for her homeland's independence.

      A small, feisty woman, Noor lacked the physical strength that might have been desirable in a spy but she was intelligent, good at puzzles, had a fine memory and impressed her interviewers by wearing a complex patterned jumper to her interview. Apparently being able to knit such items was taken by the SEO as a sign that a potential recruit could handle complex patterns. The book tells us that "Women were considered to be skilled wireless operators because they were good at knitting and could master keying better than men"

      Basu's book tells us about Noor's childhood and early life and about the family's move to England and her recruitment to the SOE. There's a lot of detail about the training that SOE operatives were put through - to be honest, rather more detail than I could really summon enough interest to follow fully. There were some things I found fascinating - such as the way the operators were given the clothes of people who had fled the country they would visit or had been sewn in the right style by tailors from those countries. When Noor first gets to France we are told how she's chastised for putting milk into the cup before pouring her tea because to do so is such a giveaway of British ways that it could blow their cover. We learn that the SOE were very unsure about sending her into France with several of her trainers seriously doubting that she could handle the pressure. In these earlier chapters, I found her a times rather too 'wet' to really be intersting although a book review is not about judging the subject of a biography, only the way in which she's been 'written'. I'm not convinced that Basu gave us a very convincing potential spy with her descriptions.

      Once Noor gets to Paris the book changes greatly and became - for me anyway - a lot more interesting. At the time she was sent to France the average life expectancy of an undercover wireless operator was just a few weeks and radio operators had the highest casualty rates of any employees with the SOE because the Germans were always tracking their signals, hunting them down and the only way to survive was by moving frequently to avoid detection. Despite weighing no more than 8 stone, she carried her wireless equipment in a suitcase weighing 30 pounds, climbed trees and leapt onto rooftops to place her radio aerial and ensure a good signal. Within a short time of arriving, Noor - under cover as Jeanne-Marie Renier, a children's nurse, code name 'Madeleine - finds herself the only survivor of the spy ring in which she worked. Betrayal, capture, attempted escape and eventual torture and death are all covered. It's no 'spoiler' to say she meets a gory end as it's well documented that she was shot in Dachau - indeed inscribed on her monument and told to us in the opening pages of the book - but the route from mild-mannered Indian writer of children's stories to brave and determined spy is an interesting one.

      ~Plenty of Substance but Questionable Style~

      There is no doubt that Noor was a remarkable woman but sadly I cannot give this book a resounding cheer because I found the style in which it was written deeply irritating. I'm perhaps unfair to the author because at the same time as reading this biography with its annoyingly emotional prose I was also reading Alex von Tunzelman's 'Indian Summer', an outstanding historical account of the Indian Independence of 1947. 'Spy Princess' suffers badly by comparison to what I'd call a 'proper' historical biography or historical account. If I'm reading an historical biography then there are two types I find acceptable; those where everything is researched to the nth degree with 80 pages of bibliography and indices and those where the historical account is presented in novel format without any attempt to provide footnotes and the like. What Basu has written is somewhere uncomfortably in between. Yes, there are many pages of references and sources at the end, yes it's probably pretty much all historically accurate, but the style is not compatible with rigorous research and attention to fact.

      Take these two sentences from the prologue:

      "Her hands and feet chained together, classified as a 'very dangerous prisoner', Noor Inayat Khan stared defiantly at her German captors. Her dark eyes flashed at them as they tried to break her resistance"

      And

      "She called out silently to Abba to give her strength".

      So what's my point? If this is historical biography where's the proof that 'her dark eyes flashed' or 'she stared defiantly'? Who knows what she may or may have called out to her father in her mind because it sure as hell isn't written down anywhere? Simply the answer is nobody knows and this 'sexing up' of historical biogs to give them a bit more dramatic impact is something I find unacceptable. Either go the whole hog and write it as a fictionalised account of a real life, or stick to what can be historically proven and has been documented. Don't guess at what Noor was feeling unless you've got it written down in black and white or unless you have first hand accounts of what was said and done. I'm not doubting that Basu did her homework and she must have spent many months researching the records of the SOE and speaking with people who knew Noor. My objection is to the cheap novelistic dramatics. What we get throughout the book is fact 'dressed up' in a more novelistic style. Some may love it but it really annoyed me.

      On the plus side, there were some lovely surprises including a list of all the agents and Resistance members who worked with Noor with details of what happened to them (most of it nasty). My favourite of the appendices is the list of Indians who were given the Victoria Cross or George Cross for their actions in the war. Each of these has a few lines about what these brave men and women did to earn their honours. I'd be more than interested to read an entire book of their stories - but preferably not one written by this author.

      ~Details~

      Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu
      ISBN 978-0750950565
      288 pages
      Current Amazon prices are £6.99 for the paperback and £4.14 for the Kindle ebook.

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