In this blog I share an account of my research trip to Latchmere House, a former MI5 headquarters during WW2 where my father was held and interrogated for 3 weeks in the summer of 1940. This piece is based partly on an excerpt from Mad Hatter, which is a fictionalized memoir.
STEEPED IN THE PAST, I reached the end of Anne Boleyn Way and saw the house looming. Even then it was hard to believe in the physical reality of a building so closely connected with my father, the man who had haunted my life with his absence.
Latchmere House, Ham Common, close by the River Thames and Kew Gardens. I knew something of its history. Built in the Victorian era as a family mansion, it had changed hands several times before being leased to the War Office in 1915 to house officers suffering from shell shock. In 1921 it had been sold to His Majesty’s Government and later became the wartime headquarters of MI5, run by Tin-Eye Stephens, Britain’s monocled master of psychological torture who had devised an efficient method of turning German spies into double agents. They say that Stephens, like Alan Turing, who broke the Enigma code at Bletchley Park, had shortened WW2 considerably.
Latchmere was an imposing building, suitably institutional save for an incongruous scattering of dwarf palms along the front driveway. I snapped it from every angle, anticipating the secrets it held and then, as I approached the front door, a face appeared at the bay window. I waved and a man in uniform stuck his head out. I explained my mission and he told me in a cockney accent that no-one was allowed inside. “Building’s been sold to developers,” he said, “The whole area’s strictly off limits. Still under care of Her Majesty’s Prison Service.” His name was Ahmed. His family had emigrated from Karachi in the 1960s, he said. “Couldn’t I just take a quick look inside?” I asked. He shook his head. “Can’t risk it, luv. More than me job’s worth. This is my mate, Tariq,” he said as a second guard arrived. They talked together in low voices as I stood outside on the tarmac, then Tariq leaned out the window and beckoned me. “Look,” he said, “Why don’t you ’phone HMPS and talk to Stella. She might be able to do something for ya.” He scribbled on a scrap of paper and handed it to me.
I didn’t carry a cell phone at that time, nor did the guards apparently, at least not for public use, so I walked down the drive onto a common which was bordered by leafy trees on one side and a row of cottages with fenced rose gardens on the far side. No reply at the first couple of houses, but at the third a sixtyish man opened the door, his bushy eyebrows raised. I apologized for the intrusion and asked to use his telephone. “’Course,” he said, ushering me in. “Just brewing up. My mate Steve’s coming over. You can join us if you like. Now ’urry up and make your call.”
Stella had stepped out for a moment. I was told to try again in five minutes. Meanwhile Steve arrived and Harry, our host, plunked a large pot of tea on the parlour table. It turned out they’d been prison guards in the building adjoining Latchmere until Harry’s retirement a year ago, and now Steve was out of work too. “I won’t call myself redundant,” he said. “Let’s just say I took early retirement when they closed ’er down three months ago. I’ve not got much of a pension but it’ll ’ave to do.”
Chocolate biscuits were offered and teacups refilled as I told them about my father’s wartime internment, and how he was held for three weeks at Latchmere House, under interrogation for his membership in Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. I was desperate to get inside, to stand in the centre of that house and imagine how it had enclosed my father and how he had perceived it – as something enormous and unfathomable, or perhaps as a claustrophobic network of cells, each the same as the last, as they hooded him in the night and moved him from one to another in a breathless maze of rooms. Surely some phantom must remain, the swirl of hope he’d felt as he thought of coming home to us. It must have been the uncertainty that broke him, together with hunger, sleep-deprivation, his mind numbed by bouts of interrogation and long periods of solitude. He’d been a sociable man, unaccustomed to sitting alone until he’d been arrested on that sunny June day in 1940. Collar the lot, Churchill had said – enemy aliens and suspected fifth columnists – Germans, Italians, Finns, Mosleyites – all to be held without trial, many until the end of the war.
Everything is deceptively clear in hindsight. I found it difficult to move beyond that seeming clarity and imagine how it was to actually live in that time, not knowing what would happen next – to inhale and exhale each moment, afraid of the future, planning and puzzling, trying to maintain some modicum of control as a prisoner without rights. That’s what I yearned to capture in the gutted house.
I excused myself and went into the hall to ’phone HMPS again. Stella answered this time. I explained my situation over again and she said she’d have to talk to her superior. Could I wait ten minutes? She’d ’phone back.
“No worries, love,” Harry said. “Sit yourself down and ’ave another cuppa.”
“We was just reminiscing about the prison riot a few years back,” Steve said, rubbing the salt and pepper stubble of his chin. “Ninety-eight, wasn’t it, Harry?”
“October 29th, week before Guy Fawkes,” Harry replied, pouring from the bottomless pot.
“Harry was the hero of the day. Got a nasty crack on the head to show for it, didn’t you mate?” Steve’s gravelly laugh.
“Thirteen stitches,” Harry said, dipping his head towards me, parting his gray hair to reveal a jagged scar.
“We were leading the men out to the exercise yard for their morning constitutional, and just as I opened the gate one of the lads pinned me to the wall while his mates seized my arms and legs in an iron grip.”
“I come up behind,” Harry said, leaning forward in his armchair, “and got the three of them, one after the other, with the butt of my fist sharp into the kidneys of the first one, knee into the groin of the second, and a sharp upper cut to the jaw on the third.”
“Harry was a champion boxer in his youth – featherweight,” Steve said, winking at me.
“But what I didn’t see was the bastard coming up behind me with a weapon he’d fashioned from an old metal spoon. Slashed at my head, he did. Got me good and proper.”
“I got myself free and sounded the alarm, so the rest of the lads scarpered like rabbits. Nobody wants to be in solitary,” Steve said ominously.
The ’phone rang and I jumped up and ran to the hall. “No visitors”’ Stella said. “Government rules.”
“But Tariq said you might …”
“Absolutely no visitors. Sorry.” The ’phone clicked.
I thanked Harry and Steve for the hospitality went back for one last look at the house. Ahmed and Tariq were waiting for me, their faces open and eager. “No go,” I told them. Then something in me rose with a last-ditch effort, still hoping they might let me in. “I’m really sorry, love,” Tariq said, “But we just don’t ’ave the authority.” Ahmed nodded in agreement.
I shrug and turn, begin slowly walking down the driveway, intending to retrace my steps, but as I walk, turning in circles for one last look, each time more distant, I begin to imagine the life of Latchmere House ringing with the laughter of Joshua Field’s eighteen children, the chatter of Mrs. Myra Smith-Jackson’s dinner guests as they admire the Louis XV furniture, the Sèvres and Dresden vases, the Canalettos and Constables. I hear the night-screaming of men fresh from the trenches of the First World War and, 25 years later, the slow breath of my father, recorded on a hidden microphone in his cell as he lies awake listening for plimsolled footfalls. Layers of emotional archaeology, a treasure-house denied.
I have a small book written by my father – an account of his internment experiences – published shortly before his suicide. He was not the only man interrogated at Latchmere to later take his life. In his particular case the cause of death was deemed accidental. He had fallen from the Mersey ferry and was decapitated by the paddles. This was several years after the war ended, during that dismal hopeless time of continued food rationing and slow recuperation.
My father’s book documents his time at Latchmere, so I know something of his physical suffering – the constant hunger, the incessant itching and weeping of bedbug bites, the humiliation of his blood-streaked skin and flaking scalp. His interrogators come in the night, each time a different one, waking him from his only refuge. At first they are polite, then they switch to threats and bullying which reminds him of his boarding school days, though he had not recognized it then as cruelty.
“When did you join the British Nazi party?”
“British Union is not a Nazi party. We stand for peace and for a new and revolutionary form of politics that will serve the British worker and preserve our Empire against foreign interference.”
“‘What d’you know about Mosley’s visits to Germany?”
“I know nothing of this …”
“Arms trafficking? D’you know about that?”
“Of course not, I …”
“How much are you paid for your part in the Movement?”
“Are you accusing me of espionage?”
“We ask the questions here, Mr. Brooke.”
They threaten him with being shot or hanged. “What’s your preference? Come on, speak up or we’ll have to decide for you.”
“I have the right of habeas corpus.”
“Oh no you don’t.” The man laughs. “No-one knows where you are.”
They never lay a finger on him, but he wishes for it, for physical pain to distract him from the torment of his confused thoughts. He embarrasses himself by scratching furiously, getting blood under his fingernails. He can barely think, let alone organize his thoughts into their usual clarity.
I don’t know if my father actually met Tin-Eye Stephens. He would have told no-one. Stephens was a sadist. He was court-marshalled for his activities as camp commandant at Bad Nenndorf during the post-war occupation of Germany, but he was acquitted and returned to Britain’s Secret Service.
By all accounts my father believed in going to the top, so I imagine him requesting a meeting with Stephens.
“The Colonel is too busy for the likes of you, unless you really have something to tell him.”
“I do, I have an important message,” he replies emphatically.
But they ignore his request and continue with the irrational interrogations. This infuriates my father, but he is a master of self-control and manages to maintain a gentlemanly comportment, except for the one time when he is woken yet again and humiliates himself by crying out for his mother, weeping with hunger and exhaustion. The interrogator is kind to him that night. He puts his arm around his shoulders and my father almost surrenders, but in reality there is nothing to tell, only that he is sorry for his outburst. It is deeply embarrassing to him, to revert in this way to childhood, to be manipulated in the night.
At midday on a Friday, near the end of his third week at Latchmere, when he cannot stop scratching and can hardly bear his own stench of sweat and dried blood, my father is summoned to the carpeted rooms of Colonel Robin Stephens. The monocled man has shifty eyes. He is clean shaven and immaculately dressed in full uniform. He gestures to his prisoner to take the seat opposite.
“So, we meet finally. Mr. Brooke, my invisible guest.”
My father half rises to offer his hand but has a sudden irresistible urge to scratch his left shoulder, which he grasps in a paroxysm.
“I’m very glad to meet you at last, Colonel Stephens,” he says through clenched teeth. “I have an urgent message which perhaps you can convey to the right people. You see, war is not the answer …”
“But what of the social niceties, Mr. Brooke? I know all about you, but you know nothing of my background. Aren’t you curious? I was born in Egypt to British parents in 1900. I was educated at Dulwich College in London before being commissioned. I earned these in the Indian Army.” He points to a double row of stripes over his heart. “I fought in a number of campaigns and was mentioned in dispatches. You haven’t had the pleasure of combat, have you, Mr. Brooke? A hatter?’ He chuckles deep in his throat, with closed mouth. ‘Languages, Mr. Brooke? You speak German?”
“No, I don’t. A little French …”
“I speak German, French, Italian, Urdu and Arabic. I am widely travelled, but my travels have not led me to respect foreigners, nor do I like Jews, but most of all, Mr. Brooke, I despise the Hun.”
“War is not the …”
Stephens silences him, his right finger rising smartly. “We have one objective here at Latchmere …” – his face a mask of implacability – “… truth, in the shortest possible time. I hope you are not going to waste my time.”
“Indeed not. I have vital information for you, Colonel Stephens. War is not the answer, as I have repeated countless times to my interrogators. And as I have written in letters to Chamberlain, Churchill, Attlee, and to my local Member of Parliament. It is the working men of England who will be killed, I wrote, the poor working classes who have no choice and will be sent to the front as cannon fodder.”
“No cannons in this war, Brooke,” Stephens says with a pitying smile. “We have Spitfires now. You’re confusing facts with rhetorical propaganda, modeling your oratory, I suspect, on that of your hero, Oswald Mosley.” Again he chuckles deep in his throat, the muscles of his face barely moving.
“That is beside the point,” Christopher says, his fists clenched at his sides as he tries to clear his mind.
Stephens leans forward, his eyebrows raised, and says with an edge of impatience in his voice, “I’m listening.”
“Yes. Yes, well I …”
“What were your plans as leader of the Stockport division of the BUF.”
“To follow our Leader and build the membership of British Union. There’s strength in numbers. Sir Oswald has a massive following. He should be leading our country.”
“Well now, he’d have to be elected for that job, wouldn’t he? We live in a democracy here in Britain.”
My father is reminded of how my mother had looked at him in silent judgment as her brother went off to war. She was clannish, always gripping the bedrock of her Welsh family, loyal to them and their values.
“Sir Oswald will be proven right. You’ll see. One day he’ll be the leader of …”
“You have nothing to tell me, do you? But I have something to tell you, Mr. Brooke.” Stephens leans forward, his weak right eye narrowing. “If the Hun were to invade our country not one of you and your kind would be permitted to leave this house.” He pauses, watching for a reaction. Then suddenly, like a gunshot – “Dismissed! And watch your back, Brooke. First rule of a soldier.”
“But you don’t understand. I have much more to say.”
Stephens is shaking his head.”‘You’re not a bad fellow, old man. You’re just a nobody.” He lifts his hands in the air and the corners of his mouth pull down in a gesture that my father cannot quite interpret but which unsettles him unaccountably. He can think of no retort. He is hostage to his gut and his skin, and a feeling of exhaustion so deep that he can barely stay on his feet. They have used my body against me, he thinks.
As I walked back down the leafy lane that was so appropriately named Anne Boleyn Way, after a woman who died of decapitation, I felt like a traitor to have imagined such a scene and to have come to this realization about my father. But my spirits were lifted to have found this building before the demolition and reconstruction that would surely obliterate even the imagining of what had passed there. I heard birdsong and felt my face dappled and warmed by a weak sun. The sky was as usual somewhat clouded, but those clouds were scudding along, swept by a swift breeze.