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“Pied Piper” (1942) by Nevil Shute. Echoes from History of the Refugee Crisis

This book has been with me since childhood. I remember having a knackered hard back copy picked up from some Church Hall sale or other which I read at least three times in my teens. Then in August, at a time when we actually being told about the refugee crisis, an article in the Guardian about a family escaping from Syria where the parents died en route leaving three under 15’s to fend for themselves (they were helped by fellow travellers to reach Croatia) I was inspired to read it again.


We can’t be anything but surprised by the media’s decision to drop the refugee crisis. If the coverage were to continue the European and UK public would be demanding concrete action. On Monday the Red Cross in Britain said it had be overwhelmed by the generosity of the Public during recent months.

A recent survey published in the Guardian showed that 31% of UK residents had made a donation to refugee causes and 1.8 million were prepared to offer a room to someone fleeing from war torn countries. Still not one person has been, or will be taken from Europe to the UK as Home Secretary Theresa May closed the borders last week.

Shute’s book concerns an elderly man, John Howard and his plight as he attempts to return to the UK from Switzerland just as the Germans launch their 1940 Western European offensive. Against his better judgement he agrees to take the two young children of a British diplomat based at the League of Nations in Geneva. The journey is perilous and as public transport and then order breaks down Howard finds himself on the road. As he attempts to move north his group cannot look away as a child is orphaned in front of their eyes during an air raid. Howard ends up with five children in tow before being arrested as a spy as he bribes a fisherman to take him across to England.

There is a big and unexpected plot twist to close the book whose universal themes of the defiance of the human spirit in times of adversity resonate today. Howard finds help in unusual places but we are also party to the dark side of humanity when the zeitgeist in a community is changed by an oppressive force.

Shute writes in an easy and readable style and the plot is taught without overdoing it. Being 1942 it is interesting to note that the public were aware of death camps in Europe and the evil side of Nazism. But at one point Howard makes a flippant reference to how tight Jewish people are with money and his website does confirm that the writer had form for anti semitism in other works.

Unfortunately the UK authorities decided this was too good a propaganda opportunity to miss and made it into a cringingly bad film where Howard is given great political speeches to deliver and his character is given a quite unpleasant streak which does not occur in the book.

We must counter the apathy of the media and the political parties by building the case for refugees as part of a wider move here and internationally to create a planned Socialist economy and society where people take precedence over money and the perpetuation of inequality.


About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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