Stuart Nimmo is the fascinating author behind the equally intriguing Perilous Moon: Occupied France, 1944—The End Game. Nimmo recently took part in a “Meet the Author” event at WHSmith Paris to share his experiences of writing Perilous Moon, a book that traces the journey of his father, British bomber pilot Neil, through Occupied France. Since Paris, for many, is a fair distance away Stuart was kind enough to answer some questions that illustrate the fascinating process behind his writing, from the original story told to him by his father to his hunt for photographs that paint a vivid picture of life in Occupied France.
Q: Which part of the book did you most enjoy writing and why?
I enjoyed writing all of Perilous Moon, Occupied France but different chapters for different reasons.
PM wasn’t written sequentially, in the same way as one films a television documentary or feature film out of sequence, that’s something I’m very used to. The book grew like a jigsaw puzzle. It started naturally enough with my father’s story, which had so enthralled his three of his sons when we were children. But my father Neil told the story just once and that was it. We were amazed, and I suggested or rather, I pleaded with him to write it down, but he didn’t. Or at least I thought he hadn’t until Parkinson’s disease had taken its toll. At that point my stepmother gave me a bundle of Neil’s notes, which turned out to be several attempts at writing his 1944 story. Apart from the early chapter of how he was shot down – which he had rather shockingly written in longhand and almost identically seven times, the rest consisted of short notes and was very bitty, mixed up, and sparse.
I thought he had written about the Lancaster flight very well and the enjoyment came in being able to help him with it at the end of his life. Neil wanted to try again and so it was a rather a wonderful project for us both to do together I think it brought us closer together as never before and at just the most important moment – the end of his life.
The Helmut Bergman part of the story didn’t begin to unfold until 2003. Bergmann’s papers and photographs were a monumental and unlikely find. To be invited by Military Antiquarian Helmut Weitz to his Hamburg gallery in order to copy what I needed for my research for the book was tremendously generous; to do just that was both exciting and, at the same time, very disturbing. On walking into the Gallery I knew that this growing, duel story was now very different, that it had to become a book and that I would have to write it!
Q: Perilous Moon looks in part at your Father’s experience of the war – did you find any parts of the book particularly difficult to write?
The difficulty came in writing and constructing the two stories as one; they start with the same incident from opposing viewpoints. I really didn’t want to interrupt my father in full flow, or to introduce Bergmann into the plot too early. I had written my father’s story in the first person, in his voice and made every effort to be true to his character and style. Having found Helmut Bergmann’s papers, letters and reports, I had tremendous leads for a lot of research, but decided that I would write his story in the third person and use the flash back technique to tell the same story very much from Bergmann’s point of view. It took a while to get the flow right and included starting the story much earlier than my father had. Having got the shape right I then followed my father and Bergmann in parallel and in real time, which of course fitted. The real difficulty for me was in writing wider historical fact into the story particularly as so many great historians and writers had covered the period so well. I decided to just mark the well-known events, but to find and cover interesting but lesser known events, in more detail, this called for serious research.
Q: As a documentary filmmaker by profession, how did writing this book compare- were there any similarities?
There are many similarities between making a broadcast documentary and writing a factual book, in fact I deliberately tried to write and illustrate “PM” as a highly visual story, and to use documentary techniques. In fact, documentary making is usually about helping interesting people to tell their story in ways that they might not be able to themselves.
I work as a storyteller, I write, I film, I record, I speak, and I tell. I started my television career at a very young age, as Ken Russell’s assistant. I doubt that you can get a better start than that, my work involved research, (which I loved) and generally assisting this hugely talented, eccentric man. Ken took me under his wing, and over the next 10 years he taught me the art making sure that I followed the right career path, part of that was a rigorous and fascinating BBC training in Film Editing at Ealing film Studios.
As with constructing a book, a television editor’s work is very much a matter of understanding the story and compiling take a network programme from the raw, out of order “rushes”. To construct a gripping, visual tale that’s true to the story, but without reminding the audience that they are actually watching television. Sadly there are many reasons why such construction is becoming a lost art, not least because of a lack of training, of time and of course of finance. In short, documentary making is telling a visually satisfying well balanced, and objective story. The BBC was mighty keen on objectivity in my day – this attitude has gone a bit wrong for them recently.
Q: What did you find out whilst researching for the book that surprised you the most?
I found the depth of the ambiguity in Occupied France extraordinary, I knew full well that it was there… but not to that extent!
The help and encouragement that I had from many Germans very pleasantly surprised me; many don’t have a problem now discussing the 1930’s and 1940’s, though they were keen that I examine attitudes and the interwar years more closely.
Q: A key feature of the book is its original period photographs – many of which have been unpublished until this book - do you have a favourite one and why?
My father’s work was always visual, and mine too! I started by looking hard for WWII images of Occupied France within France. That proved largely fruitless, as any French person who wanted to live tended not to point their ‘Kody-brown-eye’ at anything that referred to the Occupation or the German occupiers. Those shots that do exist have been used to death or lack candid interest, or are fakes and there are plenty of those about. Almost all the posed shots of armed groups of résistants for example, Résistant groups didn’t ever pose for photographs; the idea is ridiculous, suicidal. Such were the dangers in post-war French politics that most kept quiet about their activities. It was often those changing sides that became the highly visible “resistance de la dernière heure”… They had something to prove. That said, photography was a hugely popular pastime among the Axis combatants, Helmut Bergmann’s own albums taught me a great deal about how soldiers and airmen used their cameras, how they often enough made several prints of interesting shots and swapped them, they shared cameras and so on. My research through many thousands of privately taken photographs confirmed this and other things. It was a matter of getting to know the better German dealers many of whom knew what I was doing and were remarkably helpful and encouraging.
That’s a difficult one! My father’s self portrait at the front of the book of course, he took it as he was balancing on the two back legs of his chair – that was my father Neil through and through, he was a lot of fun and a great photographer.
I like them all for what they add to the story at a particular point, or they would have been dropped. From a journalistic point of view I like the unexpected that says it all…