Author, Lars Lampheter (the pen name of Dr Peter Marshall) new book, The Great Memory Show of 1943 is a spoof on a World War II secret army active in the Welsh market-town of Usk.
The book references many factual events including the creation of Jonah Patrol, the development of The Dambusters bouncing bomb and the breakout at the POW camp at Bridgend. At the heart of the book is local memory man, Tom Morton who is about to take his place in history and become a legend in his own lifetime.
Andy Howells recently put questions to Dr Peter Marshall, a prolific author in several genres as well as a distinguished psychologist, an expert in human memory and a published historian.
You’re a distinguished psychologist and expert in human memory and have already written several books on the subjects. So, what inspired you to write a spoof about the World war II secret army?
Firstly, the psychology of humour is interesting to me as a psychologist; indeed, I have a book on the subject due out soon. Secondly, as you are no doubt aware, I have been Chairman of the South East Wales Branch of Equity (the actors union) for the past five years only recently resigning and I had been asked to write a play for a community theatre a few years ago. That’s how it started out. Thirdly, I am a published historian and am aware of the secret armies that were set up in wartime.
Fourthly, I hosted the Great Memory Shows in the late 1990s.
Researching the secret armies, I was interested to discover that the candidates for recruitment needed good memory quality as they would not be able to write anything down. I immediately saw an interesting connection that could be exploited for comedy. This was a way of fulfilling four goals at a single stroke.
What is The Great Memory Show?
In a nutshell, it was a rather crafty data collection strategy in the guise of an entertaining show, that even got featured on the Today Programme. To advance research in human memory we needed candidates with unusually powerful memory quality and finding them to be allusive I set up a show which gave memory performers the opportunity to show off their talents in front of TV cameras in return for agreeing to be candidates for testing.
The hero of your book is named after Tom Moreton, a present-day taxi driver from Blackpool. What interested you in Tom to a point you gave him a namesake for a book?
Writers base their characters on people they have known either personally, or through the writings of others.
I was the invigilator for the Guinness Book of Records in memory performance. In fact, I was the chief invigilator when David Thomas broke the British pi memory record of 20,018 digits set by Chreighton Carvello. I was the invigilator when Chreighton subsequently set a new record for flashbulb memory, recalling 19 digits after only 2 seconds exposure and I invigilated a record that Andy Bell set in one of the Great Memory Shows, that was featured on News at Ten.
I was also invigilator in Tom Morton’s several record attempts but, having worked with Tom more than anyone else, in my research at London University, I came to know him well and became aware that, in him, typical characteristics found common among memory performers were accentuated.
Do you think that there were key people aiding the home front with abilities like Tom during World war II?
In so far as they needed good memory quality, the answer is yes.
What research did you do when writing the book?
I did a considerable amount of research regarding this and other wartime issues, including the breakout from Island Park, the bouncing bomb and the existence and configuration of the caves and mines under South East Wales.
In your spoof, you’ve created scenarios based in the Welsh village of Usk. Some of the characters have similar names to those assigned to the Jonah Patrol, this is a bit of an unusual move for a work of fiction. Why not create new names?
The names are different signifying they are not the same people. They are only similar to make the parody more realistic but made different to signify that the characters depicted are not meant to represent the real characters. If they were meant to be lambasted, I would have used real names.
A similar tactic was used in the Confessions novels (Confessions of a Window Cleaner, etc) to lend notions of authenticity to the material and I quote from a scholarly paper by Sian Barber of Royal Holloway, University of London, to demonstrate the point.
“The attempt to locate Timmy Lea as a real person … lending notions of authenticity to the material presented while at the same time allowing the sexual real-life antics to emerge as fantasy to titillate an audience.” *
The reason it is based in Usk is that that is the only town that could be used when you are dealing with things like the bouncing bomb, as it really was produced there at ROF Glasgow’s.
How sensitive are some of the issues you deal with in the book?
The areas dealt with have proved sensitive, as some have expressed great concern that it will ridicule a brave and honourable organisation and its members, but it doesn’t. In fact, the only people that are lambasted are those who seek to be recruited but have no chance at all of meeting the high bar set in the criteria for recruitment to the secret army. The latter required people of outstanding commitment, ability and courage, and the characters from the Home Guard and Women’s Home Defence, featured here would not have a hope in hell of being accepted. Those who fear it will trivialise the organisation and ridicule their brave ancestors couldn’t be more wrong. On the contrary It will emphasise their courage, honour and uniqueness.
What has been the response to the book so far?
The fact that it focuses on Usk does seem to have caused a mixed response. There are those who see the benefits of the potential Gavin and Stacey effect and a roughly equal sized force of people who don’t want Usk to change from a sleepy town. There are also some who, as already pointed out, are concerned that the honour of their ancestors will be compromised and there are some who are concerned that the town of Usk will be blighted by the suggestion that immorality characterised it but, again, they will be pleasantly surprised by the fact that the story told by the narrator is not believed by his audience.
The biggest response comes from those who have read it – reviewers. Their response has overwhelmingly been positive, with reports such as “This is just so funny, I laughed from the first page till the very last.” from Mid-West Book Review and “It has the potential to do for Usk what Gavin and Stacey did for Barry” from Google Books
Did you enjoy writing the book and what experience did you get from writing it?
I did enjoy writing the book although it was hard. Humour is hard to construct well in a work of a full-length novel. One liners and the jokes of stand-up comedy are easy, but putting together a whole composition that hangs together as a comedy is much more difficult than wring a serious novel. However, as a psychologist, I have studied the psychology of humour and was keen to put it into practice.
What type of reader do you hope will enjoy reading the book?
The book is aimed at middle-aged and upwards adults who feel political correctness has gone too far and are nostalgic for the simple, cathartic, sexploitation humour of the Carry on and Confessions of series that characterised typical British Humour.
The Great Memory Show of 1943 by Lars Lampheter is available now from all good book stockists.
*Barber, S. The Pinnacle of Popular Taste? The Importance of Confessions of a Window Cleaner, An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, Issue 18, October 2010)