Friday 15 April 2016

Lisbon in wartime


During the Second World War, Lisbon must have been a fascinating yet frightening and desperate place. As Hitler’s occupation swept across Europe, neutral (or supposedly neutral) Portugal became one of the Continent’s last escape routes. In an iconic image that many will recall, Lisbon was the transit point for Bergman’s Ilsa when she was waved off by Bogart’s Rick in the classic movie Casablanca, made in 1942.

When Ilsa arrived, like Alva Barton in The Alliance - the novel within 300 Days of Sun she would have found Lisbon a confusing city of dubious trades, conspiracy, and deception, and a hub of espionage. The Atlantic port was flooded with a million refugees, including Jews and Allied POWs who needed berths on passenger ships heading west. The American Export Lines shipping office was besieged. But there were also considerable numbers of foreigners coming to Lisbon with the intention of staying for various nefarious purposes—including large numbers of Nazi personnel.

However, despite the tensions, contemporary accounts of arriving in Portugal at that time by American and British writers describe a place of light and color and flowers, friendliness and generosity from the ordinary people—and profound normality after the horrors many had witnessed. The Portuguese welcomed the refugees with extraordinarily good grace.

In July 1940, the New York Times Lisbon correspondent Alva E. Gaymon wrote vivid accounts of the swelling international population in a city that still retained the lights and luxuries of pre-war Paris. In the same month, Lilian Mowrer, the wife of notable US foreign correspondent Edgar Ansel Mowrer, who had been based in Paris, wrote of the city: “Lisbon, the port of good hope, from which they could escape from the Germans by Clipper, or ocean liner, or freighter, or tramp ship—anything that would take them away from a Europe that was rapidly becoming a prison.”

 Yet despite the glittering harbour on the Tagus estuary, the superficial joviality of the Portuguese who opened their doors, the fisherwomen who walked barefoot carrying their baskets on their heads, the nightclubs where jazz bands played or fado singers captured a mournful mood, all felt the unease of living in an authoritarian regime. Salazar’s Estado Novo—the New State— was watched over by a Gestapo-like secret police and a censored press. If the locals also seemed to sway with the winds of war, favouring the side that seemed to be winning, and welcomed the hard currency these people brought, who would blame them?

Even before the United States joined the war, American nationals arrived in a steady stream to work with Lisbon’s embassies and news agencies, working closely with the British in many cases. It soon became obvious that not all these hundreds of new staff were engaged in normal diplomatic work. Military and naval attachés gathered as much information as they could. Press officers crowded in. Teams of expert coders and decoders worked on sending and receiving communications around the clock. False identities and spies were two a penny. In a show of strength, US battleships put in to harbour – their crews were said to be the happiest foreigners in Lisbon, as they were the only ones certain of a passage out. 

As the guns of war raged elsewhere, the Allies and the Nazis faced each other every day in the squares and streets, cafés and restaurants of Lisbon. Passenger planes flew in from New York: the famous Pan Am clipper service, a luxurious flying boat that landed on the Tagus river. Noel Coward, travelling on propaganda work, called the aircraft: “a well-appointed bus that had become somehow embedded in the sky”. Meanwhile, on nearby Portella airfield, black-painted converted Nazi bombers were bringing in passengers from Berlin alongside scheduled flights from London.

Lisbon, with its swirling sea mists and rumours, its mixture of grand architecture and twisting medieval streets, was a place of brittle glamor. Famous names passing through, helped on their way by well-wishers, or using their fame to promote the Allied cause, or in the process of making their names, included Antoine Saint-Exupéry, Marc Chagall, Arthur Koestler, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), Lord Mountbatten, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and scores of minor European royalty. Gone with the Wind star Leslie Howard was killed in 1943 when the airliner he was traveling in was shot down over the Bay of Biscay.

On the coast, the enemies sunbathed within earshot of each other and gambled together at the casino at Estoril, where the cream of European society, including royalty, was sitting out the war in sunshine and relative comfort. Across the roulette tables, under glittering chandeliers, as in the boulevards of Lisbon, Allied intelligence agents pitted their wits against the German Abwehr and Gestapo, each side trying to infiltrate and disrupt each other’s business by any means possible. Legendary secret agents like Garbo, real name Juan Pujol García, who played a double game for the British while apparently spying for the Nazis, made Lisbon their centre of operations.

For Hitler’s Germany had a pressing reason for sending agents to Portugal: the acquisition of the mineral tungsten. Tungsten, or wolfram, was a vital component in the manufacture of armour-piercing munitions, and the nearest deposits were mined in Portugal. The Nazis needed to cut deals with the Portuguese. But they were at an historic disadvantage, thanks to England’s status as Portugal’s oldest ally. These two countries had supported each other for 800 years and had the trade links to prove it, in port wine …and tungsten mining. Naturally, the Allies were equally determined to frustrate any Nazi bid for an element needed for arms manufacture. 

But the Portuguese, led by Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar were playing a dangerous game, walking the tightrope of neutrality. An intellectual economist, Salazar was known as “The Plainclothes Dictator” and had more in common ideologically with Hitler than with the Allies. The gold the Nazis offered in payment for tungsten was hard to resist for a poor country that was vulnerable to invasion either from Germany or Franco’s Spain – and Salazar did not resist taking it. Both sides put pressure on him, and made their deals, politically as well as economically. 

Even before the United States joined the war, Americans were involved in humanitarian organizations in Lisbon. An early presence was the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker endeavor working for peace and the relief of suffering. The Lisbon office director was Philip Conrad, and his assistant Howard Wriggins would go on to become a distinguished US diplomat and academic.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – known to most in Lisbon simply as “The Joint” – worked tirelessly from the start, too. Its head was a rabbi with a doctorate from Yale, Joseph J Schwartz, who had been in Europe when the war began. He set up headquarters in the city in June 1940 and set about finding food and shelter for the desperate and displaced in the first instance, and paperwork and transport across the Atlantic in the second.

In October 1942, a group of thirty American women, all officially involved in child welfare, arrived in Lisbon on a Portuguese liner with the purpose of escorting one thousand French children to America and safety in the care of temporary foster families. But the invasion of North Africa and the occupation of the former free zone of the South of France meant that the children’s escape route was blocked. In a further tragedy, one of the women, Hazel Helen Mackay, of the Children’s Welfare Foundation in New York, disappeared from the dangerous sea cliff of Boca do Inferno – the Mouth of Hell – near Cascais. Only her shoes and handbag remained.

On the offensive, newspaper reporters from all countries were engaged in a ruthless game of black propaganda as well as information gathering. Disinformation games began, with British newspapers made up for sale in Lisbon carrying stories that would unsettle the Nazis and feed false leads.

Voice of America and the popular radio commentator Elmer Davis entered the fray in June 1942. Hollywood led the way in challenging for hearts and minds in more subtle ways by providing many of the movies that played in the cinemas.

Journalist Marya Mannes was a later arrival. She had been an editor for Vogue magazine in her native New York before moving to Italy in the 1930s with her husband. In the teeth of war, the couple had returned to the United States. He was soon a navy pilot and she used her editorial skills to gather information about the situation across Europe from the refugees who had made it across the Atlantic. From this, she moved into intelligence work, being trained as a spy for the Secret Intelligence Branch of the OSS.
She was sent to the Lisbon station just before the D-Day landings in June 1944. Her cover was that she was working as a reporter for The New Yorker, and indeed she did produce several Letters from Lisbon, but her brief was to mingle in the city, keeping alert for any promising information and swapping gossip with the other foreign correspondents. So credible was she simply as a glamorous magazine writer – she was tall, blonde and beautiful – that she would even tell men who asked what she was doing in Portugal, “I’m an international spy, of course!”

Eventually, as the war swung in favor of the Allies, the most crucial deal was negotiated by Churchill and the old ally England: the use of the Portuguese islands in the mid-Atlantic, the Azores, as a forward base for the United States Air Force. Portugal emerged one of the winners after the war, too. Salazar’s shrewd trade in wolfram saw the country’s balance of trade deficit go from $40 million in the red in 1939 to a $68 million surplus in 1944. A significant amount of that can be accounted for by payment from the German Reichsbank to the Banco do Portugal of 124 tons of Nazi gold. 
* The photo at the top of the page comes from my Instagram review of Ronald Weber's excellent book, The Lisbon Route.

Tuesday 12 April 2016

A book by its cover

Cover art for books is a subject that fascinates readers, reviewers and authors alike. Getting the cover right is crucial to a book's retail success - and keeping author and readers happy. I couldn't be more delighted with the cover for 300 Days of Sun designed by Jarrod Taylor. It offers an alluring first impression that is entirely relevant to the story and it's attractive in the full sense of the word: it draws you into the setting of the story, the dramatic rocky coast of the Algarve in Portugal. Brightness, beauty and danger are implicit in the image, as is the hint of a scratched old book.
But how did this cover evolve from an initial idea? To celebrate publication day in the USA and Canada, I've been given permission to show the process behind the scenes as discussion progressed between editor and author, design team and sales and marketing at HarperCollins.
I had just arrived in France last summer when the first images came through in an email from my editor, Jennifer Barth. Which did I prefer of these two?
I thought about it for a few hours, and wrote back to say I liked the red one best. It was the way the letters seemed to be sinking (or rising) behind the layers of the city that appealed. As it turned out, I was in a minority, and most votes went to the second design, by Gregg Kulick. I can understand why. The image is a strong one, with a great sense of light and dark. Perhaps it was the lettering that put me off. 
The next stage was another email containing another four images, all by Jarrod Taylor. Which did I like best? Which would you choose?
I liked them all except the third one, because the yellow rock seemed to hint strangely at an Egyptian pyramid. Our first guests of the summer had arrived, and we had a group reaction to report back. Most popular were the second and the fourth (though the lettering seemed wrong on that one).
The team in New York played around with the second for a while, using a deeper blue and capital letters (gorgeous, rather unusual, colours for cover art - and I preferred the original):
Then the fourth was re-worked and presented to a marketing and sales meeting. Everyone agreed, including me, over in France, that we had found our ideal cover:
So there we have it. Do you agree, or would you have made a different choice? As far as I'm concerned, as soon as I saw this last version, I felt it was right, almost like a sigh of relief.
As the book finally goes on sale, huge thanks to everyone at Harper, especially Jarrod Taylor and Gregg Kulick, Jennifer Barth, Amy Baker, Katherine Beitner, Jonathan Burnham, Cal Morgan, Kathryn Ratcliffe-Lee, Mary Sasso, Sherry Wasserman and Erin Wicks. Also to Stephanie Cabot, as ever. 
"a deeply satisfying novel, a rich story with a strong feeling for time and place and the expert pacing of the best thrillers. Readers will appreciate Lawrenson’s ability to combine stunning atmosphere with a fascinating historical backstory."
                                                     — starred Booklist review

Thursday 7 April 2016

The seeds of a novel

A question I'm asked surprisingly often is, "Where do you get the ideas for your novels?" As someone who is always noticing things and wondering whether these would make a story, I always feel it's more a question of, "How do you decide which idea would make the best story?"
The seeds of 300 Days of Sun were sown when I traveled to Faro with my daughter Maddy, who had booked herself a two-week Portuguese language course there. She was only seventeen at the time and I felt I couldn’t allow her to go alone, though she would have done so, quite happily. While she went to class every morning, I wandered around the town with a street map, camera and my notebook. 

I am always inspired to write by the places I visit, and Faro was no exception. I had never been there before, though I knew the name from a hundred airport departure boards, as the hub for tourists traveling to the Algarve coast. Maddy and I were charmed from the first evening, by its mosaic pavements, by the laid-back atmosphere in the August heat, by the sea and the glimpses of green salt marsh. In the afternoons, we found various ways to get to the beaches and islands – and the first time we went to Praia de Faro, we did find the sea curiously green and furry, though this is not the usual state of affairs.

It’s important to say here that, for all the geographical accuracy of my portrayal of Faro, the town in this book is an imaginary version: certain elements, like great storm of February 1941 and the re-opening of the Café Alianҫa during the local elections (held, in real life, in 2013), are superficially true, but the story in the book is entirely fictional. If there are similarities with real life on the Algarve, this is only in order to give my story the tang of authenticity, though as ever, I have tried to describe the places as I found them, to transport the reader to an atmospheric and intriguing place.

It has been a long time coming, but a big thank you is due to the Portuguese Tourist Board in London. In June 1985, I was lucky enough to be invited on a press trip to Lisbon, Cascais and Estoril. I was a trainee reporter on the Kentish Times, a weekly newspaper based in South London. The trip was an adventure that began with a gathering of six or seven strangers in the departure lounge at Heathrow airport; we were to be escorted by a Portuguese guide with a twinkly smile called João and, in return for writing an article extolling the beauty of this area of Portugal’s Atlantic coast, we would be treated to a week of interesting trips and lovely meals.


We had a wonderful time. Everyone seemed to get along, and there was lots of laughter, including a running joke about sardines, though the details of that one have got away. We visited Setúbal, Óbidos, Belém and Sintra, and the pousadas, the medieval castles and convents that had been transformed into atmospheric hotels. We had dinner one evening at the Fortaleza do Guincho at Cascais, where we drank white port with ice as an aperitif. Here I am, in a collage of old photos (I loved those pink shoes).
Unfortunately, when I got back to England and wrote my piece, only four sparse, dull paragraphs made it into print with no photograph. I was so embarrassed that I never went to the trip reunion in London a few months later, not daring to face João again. So if anyone at the Portuguese Tourist Board should find themselves reading this book, may I say Obrigado and apologize for making you wait so long for some words that do Lisbon and Cascais justice.

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