We are publishing THE CAMP by Gordon Williams on 31st December. A crazy day to launch. But the serendipitousness of having a book about conscripts on the presses proved just too much. Because on 31st December 1960 conscription ended in the UK.
THE CAMP is set in the mid 1950s on an airbase in West Germany. Given the hundreds of thousands of Brits who went through the British Army of the Rhine, the amount of literary output is pretty miniscule on this topic. Conscripts don’t have the same glamour as spies. Instead they usually have cheeky chappy escapades of the ‘Carry On Sergeant’ variety. Not in THE CAMP they don’t. It’s pretty tough book. It must have been a shocker when it was first published. Gordon Williams remembers rumours that is was banned from libraries at RAF bases at the time. Because the conscripts find themselves in a base ruled by a despot. The Commies aren’t the enemy, the base commander is.
Williams was remembering his own experiences under a martinet commander at Gutersloh as well as revelations emerging from a court martial of MPs in Cologne around the same time. He wrote it, in part, as an exorcism and as an expose. But re-reading it again has changed his mind. ‘I hadn’t realised…. it’s a rite of passage.’
So THE CAMP is different on so many levels. There is no ‘hot war’ military action, no ‘cold war’ spies glamour. It’s written from the ‘other ranks’ viewpoint, although Williams was exasperated by one reviewer extolling his insight into the working classes. ‘We were Scots lads in the RAF – we all had our highers’ [the equivalent of A levels].
How to capture this in the books cover? A stark serious look in black and white? That would be a bit of a downer in a narrative that has so much verve in it. The original paperback publishers went for a topless girl with an officer’s jacket thrown over her shoulders. She is carrying a crate of beer bottles. Williams observations on what is wrong with this image would fill a book in themselves. So what should the cover of the book be?
We went back to his observation – it’s a rite of passage. And we found a picture of a group of lads from that era, enjoying a pint in a bar on a base in West Germany. It completely changes the feel of the book, swopping topless lady for tipsy lads. And it make the point: this isn’t escapist literature. It’s a doorway back into 1955.