Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Escape Artist: the Nine Lives of Harry Perry Robinson

by Joseph McAleer
Oxford University Press, 2020
David F. Beer, Reviewer

History is replete with individuals who led extraordinary and influential lives yet who are largely unknown today. Harry Perry Robinson (1859–1930) is one of these, and this book seeks to remedy that oversight (xiii). 

HPR in 1896 While in America

Joseph McAleer's book opens with the above lines and then gives us a splendid biography of a remarkable man who, among many other accomplishments, was the oldest correspondent on the Western Front during the Great War. The book's title notwithstanding, Harry Robinson wasn't an escape artist in the Houdini sense but a man with an irresistible urge for one adventure after another—and with the journalistic ability to write about them all. With such material at hand, author McAleer is able to present a fascinating and detailed life which at times reads like the "ripping yarns" I remember being absorbed in as a lad many years ago. 

Harry was the youngest of six children and the son of an English clergyman who became a chaplain in the Indian Army. To say the family was gifted and eccentric might be a bit of an understatement: as the author points out, each of them is probably worth a biography. Harry graduated from Oxford in 1882, and then, unlike the rest of the family who were "imbued with the spirit of the Empire and service to Queen and Country in India" (12), Harry lit out the other way, seeking adventure in the United States. He later referred to his decision thus: 

. . .it seems to be the fashion in England to divide the utterly good-for-nothing members of a family between America and the Church, as two fields in which no kind of fool could help getting on (13). 

No fool, Harry did very well in America. He traveled widely, particularly to the come-and-go gold rush towns of the Dakotas and Idaho and made a name for himself as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. A major reporting assignment on the opening of the Northern Pacific Railway's route from Minnesota to the Pacific Coast not only won him further distinction as a reporter but also forged a lifelong bond between Harry and the railroad industry. In a few short years he had not only become an American citizen and the editor and publisher of the Northwestern Railroader but was also somewhat of a political force for the railroads. He published a novel and some short stories, married well into a publishing family, and was "akin to a celebrity in Chicago and Minneapolis" (115). 

Then, as the 19th century drew to a close, Harry gave it all up and returned to England! Reasons for this are unclear, although author McAleer probes the possibilities. Yet it wasn't long before Harry had reinvented himself as an English book publisher and continued to travel and write fiction. He never felt he had enough money and apparently did not enjoy the best of health. However, when war broke out, at the age of 55, and despite now having a second wife and a son, Harry wanted nothing more than to go to the Western Front as a reporter—and he went.

War Correspondent

Working as a "special correspondent" for the Times under the auspices of Lord Northcliffe, Harry was soon in Belgium witnessing the German invasion and the fall of Antwerp—and barely escaping with countless refugees to Holland. His accounts of the long evacuation by foot are detailed and vivid: 

People died along that road and babies were born. And still the procession moved on, always at foot's pace, flowing like some thickly congealed liquid: motor-cars, horse-drawn vehicles, carts dragged by dogs or pushed by hand, cattle and goats and other farm animals, dogs innumerable, old men and toddling children, richly dressed women and beggars, the lame, the sick, and the dying. (192) He had never seen such horror and returned to England to recuperate. But in January 1915 he resumed his duties in Amsterdam and then was sent to Serbia, which at that time was enjoying a lull in the war. He wrote to his son: 

A lot of houses in Belgrade have been knocked to bits by Austrian guns; but the Serbians fought so well that they have got over 60,000 Austrian prisoners. Since the rest of the Austrians ran away out of the country there has been very little fighting, except shooting at each other across the river, but it will very soon begin again. (194)

Harry was amazed at the liberty given the Austrian prisoners by the Serbians. They were free to work at a variety of occupations, such as cab drivers, waiters, painters, or carpenters, and their officers had "absolutely nothing to complain of except idleness".(196) The irony of this situation was not lost on Harry: 

That the enemy who ravaged and outraged as the Austrians did and who systematically made use of… brutal weapons should be treated with kindness which the Serbians show towards their prisoners is a striking illustration of the Southern Slav character. (196)

HPR (Top Center) with Fellow War Correspondents

Occasionally Harry was recalled home for various reasons, but he never stayed long. He returned to Amsterdam but then was put into khaki and assigned as a reporter to the British General Headquarters. He was now writing for both the Times and the Daily News and became good friends with Philip Gibbs who was reporting for two other papers. They often discussed the nature of war reporting and censorship and were quite aware of the criticism war reporting often met at the hands of a comfortable public back home. Meanwhile, Harry's health problems—such as indigestion and lumbago—continued to bother him. 

At the end of June 1916 the correspondents moved to Amiens to be closer to the forthcoming battle on the Somme. For propaganda reasons Harry could not report all the details of the slaughter although he certainly saw it. In 1917 he wrote The Turning Point: The Battle of the Somme, a well-received book in which he didn't hold back on describing the dreadful sights of destruction and death and their aftermath: 

The work of gathering the dead and preparing them for burial was still going on. Some still lay where they had fallen, full length with their heads toward the German trench… Others, laid in orderly rows and being very gently and reverently handled, were side by side along a narrow open piece of ground…I think the most horrible figure of all was a man-part of a man-who lay flat upon the earth, and there was nothing of him above the shoulder blades. War in its details is a gruesome thing. (208-209)

So much of Harry's unusual life is described in the 368 pages of Escape Artist that it is impossible to touch on it all in a short review. He was knighted due to his war coverage and became Sir Harry Perry Robinson. He returned to England but spent much time in the south of France due to health problems. In 1923 he accompanied Lord Carnarvon to Egypt and to the much-anticipated opening of part of Tutankhamun's tomb, filing stories to feed the growing "Tut-mania" and for the first time truly experiencing the feeding frenzy of the international press. (270)

Before he died in December 1930, he created somewhat of a storm by arguing in an article in the Times, "No More Olympic Games," that further games should be cancelled. His reasons are amply detailed and described in the book, as are all the fascinating events of Harry's incredible life.

I don't think I've ever enjoyed a memoir as much as I enjoyed this life of Harry Perry Robinson. The book is a "keeper" that I intend to read more than once. Author Joseph McAleer has done us a great favor by so ably bringing this complex and intriguing character to life again.

David F. Beer

1 comment:

  1. Never have I read such a stunning review. Bravo. There were enough cliff hanger comments to fuel a desire to read the details. Again, bravo. Cheers