Books: Circles of Perdition

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Dark Descent. Miss West's book is a descent into the circles of a drab inferno. It was reached through several pit heads—the bomb-battered building of London's Central Criminal Court, the House of Lords, a court martial near the blitzed waterfront at Portsmouth. Above all, it was reached through the collapsing corridors of many ruined minds.

There were about 20 traitors. In the first circle were those whom Miss West calls the children of treason—"The ones who thought like children, and felt like children, and were treacherous as children are, without malice, only because someone was giving away sweetmeats or because the whole gang was chasing the dog."

There was Kenneth Edward. When World War II began, Kenneth Edward was 13. In 1940 he went to sea in an ammunition ship. At 15, he transferred to the Cymbeline, which was sunk by a German raider. The raider landed him in France and he was sent to an internment camp, then to another and another and another. He did not know where these camps were or how long he stayed in them. At last Kenneth came to the attention of John Amery, another British traitor, who was organizing a British Free Corps to fight the Russians. In time the boy enjoyed the distinction of being the only private in the British Free Corps (all the others were officers). Then he was forgotten.

He spoke little German and so was often arrested—perhaps 23 times. The collapse of Germany came. Kenneth surrendered to the Russians, who turned him over to the Americans, who turned him over to the British. He was almost 18, and a traitor.

The Repentant. There were other children of treason. Says Author West: "The children "who go from their homes with strangers because they have been given cakes and sweets are unsustained by pride when the unkindness falls on them. They know well that they have done wrong. A person should be loyal to his father and mother, to his brothers and sisters, to his friends, to his town or village, to his province, to his country; and a person should do nothing for a bribe, even if it takes the form of a promise that he should live instead of die."

All the children repented: "This attitude was clearly distinguishable from regret at having been on the losing side, and it was not feigned; the rush of blood from the cheek after the shameful admission, the greenish swaying sickness of repentance are inimitable. It is not an attitude which has been taught them by an exploiting class. They were born into a tongue-tied age, and neither their school teachers or the culture within their reach had given them such positive instruction. The judgment they passed on their own disloyalty and the loyalty of others was a spontaneous reaction to experience."

Circle No. 2. The second circle of Miss West's inferno is that of the grotesques—those who were more developed but scarcely older than the children. Some were, like Kenneth Edward, merchant seamen. Some were British prisoners of war who went over to the Germans. Some had been members of Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. Almost all became members of the British Free Corps.

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