Searching for Charlie: In Pursuit of the Real Charles Upham VC & Bar
Upstart Press, $50
In his new book, Tom Scott is "in pursuit of" war hero Charles Upham, a burgeoning genre that pairs biography with the author's own journey. Scott carries with him Kenneth Sandford's 1962 biography of Upham, Mark of the Lion, sometimes correcting its minor errors (Upham never won a knighthood). Scott is convinced that, despite accusations, Charles Hazlitt Upham was no psychopath: instead he was a modest, if determined, Kiwi bloke.
Scott's world-roaming quest is to find the source of Upham's extraordinary courage, well attested by official records and many witnesses. Upham was the only combat soldier to win the Victoria Cross twice and his superiors would have awarded him more if they had not been overruled. If you're going to have a war at all, Charlie Upham was the type of soldier you wanted in the front line. He really did knock out, single-handedly, enemy machine-gun posts and strong points in the counter-attack on Maleme airfield in Crete. He really did organise defences against Rommel's tanks on the Minqar Qaim escarpment in North Africa and led the breakout once the Kiwis were surrounded.
With all the gusto of an old Boys' Own Paper yarn, Scott depicts Upham rallying his men and charging forward, throwing hand grenades at anything that looked like an enemy. The son of a wealthy barrister, Upham may have had a privileged childhood before he morphed into a rugged farmer and soldier but,in Scott's portrait, he has a "defiant, bewildered, almost pathological modesty". He's a regular joker who could swear a blue streak and is "fiercely egalitarian".
Scott travels to the sites of Upham's war experience — Greece, Crete, North Africa, Italy, Germany — though little of the travelogue illuminates anything new about Upham himself. The author's interviews include military historians, Upham's family and surviving fellow soldiers, but Searching for Charlie has only a very modest bibliography and absolutely no footnotes or endnotes to verify sources.
Many passages, in fact, read like fiction. Was Charlie Upham really sitting in a long drop in 1935, reading a page of newspaper supplied as toilet paper, when he first became aware of Hitler's persecution of Jews? Maybe, but what's the source of the story? Scott admits that some scenes are simply as he imagines they should have been, like Upham's response when turning down a knighthood.
It's true that Scott doesn't deny the darker side of Upham, showing that, post-war, he could be a grumpy and even threatening man. Reasonably enough, Scott suggests this could have been one effect of long-term PTSD. Even so, Searching for Charlie reinforces the iconic image of the great New Zealand warrior without finding new explanations of the source of his extraordinary courage. Still, the book will have a wide readership and be enjoyed by many, even if historians and keen readers of history who want more will grit their teeth.
Reviewed by Nicholas Reid
This review was commissioned by the Academy of New Zealand Literature and a longer version will appear on anzliterature.com