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The last of the quiet heroes

The passing of Eileen Nearne at 89 has made headlines.

That’s not surprising. For a brief, intense period her life was extraordinary. As a member of the wartime Special Operations Executive, she did her country unflinching service. Faced with Nazi torture, she responded, by all accounts, heroically.

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But that, sufficient though it ought to be, was not the reason why her death caught the world’s attention.

Attention, visibility, recognition, and the obsessive, incessant chatter of modern times were the things Nearne shunned. Last week her niece remembered the former radio operator, who lived alone in a rented Torquay flat, as “polite”. Odile Nearne added, however: “She never wanted to speak about what she did in the war. In fact, she did not want to be famous.”

That, says our society, is strange. Who refuses their minutes of fame, not least when their deeds are unimpeachable? Some Radio 1 DJ – the unspeakable Chris Moyles, as it happens – can spend half-an-hour on air whining about respect because his £500,000 salary has been delayed. Yet an actual hero, decorated by two governments, imbued with the vicarious glamour of a thousand movies, insists on anonymity. The media have no words for that. So Nearne dies, as every headline had it, “a recluse”.

It’s not true. She was well-enough known at the local Catholic church where she worshipped. She made friends through her work for animal charities. She had recorded her memoirs, after a fashion, for the archives of the Special Forces Club. Nearne was reticent, not reclusive, marked by the peculiar ambivalence of those who have seen war at close hand.

You can piece that together, perhaps. Parachuted into France in 1944, Nearne was captured and tortured before managing to escape. The casualty rate in SOE was high: many did not survive their fantastically dangerous missions. Those who did come through knew what it was to live constantly with the prospect of imminent death. Hence the explanation given by Nearne’s niece: “People like her just want to forget and not relive their suffering.”

But in that war, in weird compensation, those who worked clandestinely were intensely alive. Many survivors have struggled to describe it. In her recorded memoir Nearne made bald, remarkable statements. Thus: “It was life in the shadows. I think I was suited for it. I could be hard and secret. I could be lonely, I could be independent, but I wasn’t bored. I liked the work. After the war, I missed it.”

Hard and secret: that speaks of a type. But to enjoy the nerve-shredding stress, even to miss the experience when it was over?

Nearne seems to have suffered a serious mental collapse after the event – headaches, depression, sleeplessness, palpitations and “a sense of unreality” – but only after the event. How could she ever have been voluble? How could she have explained? And how could she, who believed “willpower” to be “the most important”, have chatted gamely about the aftermath with anyone – all of us – who were not there?

Reticence had a further motive, I think. Many of the SOE women were volunteers. Others were “encouraged” into the work because they had language skills and knew the countries for which they were bound. But why did any of them do it? Not for the decorations – an MBE and the Croix de Guerre in Nearne’s case – and certainly not for the glamour, of which there was none. For long enough they were barred even from talking about their experiences with those closest to them. The rewards were pitiful – a pension, perhaps – and the prizes few. The motive came from within.

Draw a contrast. In the modern era, when self-serving politicians launch pointless wars for the sake of ego and influence, we object to the neglect of service people. That’s reasonable and right. But we leap, in this chattering age of celebrity memoirs and public display, to an absurd opposite extreme. Now all our soldiers are “heroes” no matter what, fit for the applause of pop stars and the glare of charity concerts.

Reticence is forbidden. Self-effacement is freakish. Modesty is an antique and altruism, the deed with no expectation of reward or attention, is close to extinct. Yet Nearne survived an age in which, crudely put, no explanations were required, in which misery memoirs would have been regarded as unseemly and public psychobabble as childish.

Her era was mocked for long enough because of the dangerous, suicidal myth of the stiff upper lip. Yet set beside the emotional incontinence of the present, when Moyles can earn as many headlines as the Afghanistan death toll, it no longer seems so foolish. Nearne said nothing, decade after decade, because there was nothing to say. We can judge that she sacrificed everything short of her life in what Studs Terkel memorialised as the Good War. Yet she seemed to think that questions of choice, and of sacrifice, did not arise.

That leads, of course, to the sort of blind patriotism on which idiot politicians and half-wit generals depend. Nearne was, it seems, “determined in her patriotic views”. But how could she have been otherwise? And who, bar the purest pacifist, contends that the Nazis did not have to be opposed? And what did the risks run by members of SOE amount to if not an altruism that seems now to belong to another world? Yet if they were heroic, so were millions of others.

Few of those who went to war would have said, with Nearne, that they “liked the work”. Often enough, it was hellish. At minimum, it tore irreparable holes in families, for years on end. Recent weeks have seen many of the myths of the Blitz dismantled by TV documentaries. As ever, the medium has provided few real surprises.

Not everyone was noble, or stoic, or honourable, or honest as the bombs fell. But most were. Given the choice, they offered up the best of themselves.

The age of social media and celebrity confessions cannot grasp why Nearne didn’t want to talk about it. The desire for privacy is another trait fast disappearing, but this reticence, it seems, was part of the woman. There has long been a certain type of soldier who refuses, point blank, to talk about his experiences while others prop up the bar, airing their tall tales. Nearne went beyond that. She could indeed have been famous, recognised for the national hero she was, and she spurned it.

So: a recluse. Which is to say, if you can follow the logic, a person who had withdrawn from society because she had no desire to talk about what she had done for that society, and evidently believed no-one had the right to make her speak. She had done remarkable things, but in the chattering 21st century we are baffled by silence. In fact, we doubt that anyone has the right to it. Had they got wind of her, the TV crews and biographers, the columnists and the dignitaries, would have been camped on Nearne’s doorstep years ago.

I find her story cheering. I find her courage daunting. And I find in Eileen Nearne a strange and paradoxical truth. Real altruism cannot be explained. It exists or it does not. And when it exists it needs no explanation.

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