Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Lawrence Earl - the Canadian who wrote YANGTSE INCIDENT

YANGTSE  INCIDENT  by Lawrence Earl,  George Harrap Publisher, London 1950

Lawrence Earl - the Canadian who 

by Ronald J. Jack

Brian Crozier was a neophyte book reviewer in 1951  when he began a review with this - “I cannot tell you anything about Lawrence Earl, who is, to all appearances, an unknown, a newcomer to publication; but I suspect him of being a journalist of rare talent.”  Crozier, who later became an historian, biographer and also a C.I.A. agent of influence, had the instincts of a sleuth, and was understandably puzzled that the publisher of such a well-told tale, YANGTSE INCIDENT: The Story of H.M.S. Amethyst, had not thought to include an author photo or profile.  The only clue given was in the book dedication -  “To  H.F.W.” , a special someone who meant a great deal to “Lawrence Earl” but who must forever remain in the shadows.

For years I had YANGTSE INCIDENT in my library, consulting it only at those moments when I was pursuing some subject or other involving the Royal Navy’s China Station, or perhaps some naval aspect of the Chinese Civil War.  My copy had a life of its own, having once been the property of John Riseley-Pritchard, a sometime Formula One driver, sport pilot, partner in VIDAL SASSOON, and a convicted pedophile. I received it in 1987 as a token “Best Article” prize, in lieu of a writing fee.

Though I live in Vancouver my "hometown" was Saint John, New Brunswick, and I have researched and written much on its history. Each year I get the Alumni newspaper of Saint John High School via Canada Post and,  morbid cuss that I am, I tend to focus on the necrology.  In May 2006 appeared an obituary notice for "Lawrence Earl", a chap who started in journalism in 1931 as editor of The Red and Gray newspaper, then moved to Montreal and began a career with some of the highest circulation newsweeklies of the mid-20th century.  The Obit was just the sort of bridge-piece I needed to connect two fugitive pieces of memory that had never been known to associate.

Lawrence Earl was actually born Lawrence Earl Wiezel in 1915, in Saint John. His family was of Hungarian Jewish extraction, and for decades operated a successful footwear business in the city. During the Great Depression their busy firm, WIEZEL BROS. BOOTS AND SHOES was located in the city centre and the Wiezel family lived in an apartment over the store. In 1931 his father purchased a modern home, the same year Lawrence (“Lollie” to his family) started in Grade 12. It is clear that while completing high school young Lawrence struggled with personal identity, just as millions of Canadian teenagers have done and still do.  He made the bold move, no doubt painful to his parents, of Anglicizing his name. He dropped the Jewish surname “Wiezel” and became simply “Lawrence Earl” cub reporter.  His dream was to be a photojournalist with the influential magazines he enjoyed reading, such as the American juggernauts LIFE and LOOK.  To that end he diligently practiced his craft  and sought employment rather than going on to university.  I think his father may have bankrolled his first professional camera, which cost $400 in 1940 dollars. He once shared his working rules with an audience in Montreal – “Know your camera, keep your eyes open and use your imagination”.  Good advice, and it soon propelled him top prominence at THE MONTREAL STANDARD where he was a staff photographer on the weekly news magazine during World War Two.

THE STANDARD PHOTONEWS, a 1940 copy. Canadian war news was a staple.

This is where my mind needed a fresh prompt, because I was after all, aware of Lawrence Earl’s wartime photography. I had collected a dozen examples of it when writing Saint John military history in the early 1980s, but I never made the connection to the “British” author of YANGTSE INCIDENT.   In early 1942 Lawrence Earl was sent to Saint John to shoot a feature on the port defences – the coastal batteries and the vessel examination system.  His impressive photo-essay, Small Ships and Great Guns are the Watchdogs Over Our Busy Harbourswas the most complete coverage the fortress garrison had under wartime conditions of media censorship.  Earl’s enthusiasm for the city of his birth is revealed in the effort he made to do a very solid job of reporting, without revealing a scrap of information to the enemy.  He actually participated in the official disinformation process, photographing a naval officer and a chalkboard map which was an entirely bogus depiction of what the environs of Saint John actually looked like. Very amusing. 

Gun crew in the defended port of Saint John, N.B. - early 1942

Lawrence Earl became a Canadian War Correspondent rather late.  In 1944 THE MONTREAL STANDARD dispatched him to London in time to help cover the great push from Normandy to the Rhine, and he captured some dramatic moments with his lens. It is said that one of his photos of Juliana, Holland’s Queen in wartime exile, graced the cover of TIME magazine, but if so Earl wasn’t credited by name.  (She appeared on three covers, none attributed to Earl. The image attributed to the ACME photo agency may be his.) What really mattered were the professional contacts he made in London, because he and wife Jane Armstrong enjoyed the city and its culture, and both sought work that would keep them in England.

Lawrence Earl, Canadian War Correspondent, Montreal 1944

Lawrence Earl, National Geographic Magazine, December 1946
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine, December 1946.
Twenty Lawrence Earl photos of Dike repair in Holland.

Earl did camera work for several British illustrated magazines after the war, and had his work published in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC (December 1946) but the money was slow and the couple returned briefly to Canada in 1947.  His big break came in August 1949 with a job offer from JOHN BULL, Britain’s equivalent to the SATURDAY EVENING POST.  When the ship’s company of H.M.S. AMETHYST returned in 1949 Earl was on hand to greet them and to interview as many crewmen who would talk, including the seniors officers.  Before long, and with his employer’s permission he began work on a book and had a contract with George G. Harrap and Company.  The publishers were known for generous license, allowing staff writers to spin off books from their assignments, and also frequently bought serial rights.  Several famous British authors got their start creating books from magazine material.  JOHN BULL, which published on Wednesdays, ran portions of YANGTSE INCIDENT as a six-part serial late in 1950.

JOHN BULL magazine, Yangtse Incident

In terms of media interest, the story got as close to saturation as was possible in 1949. Supported by editorial leads and newsreels in the cinemas, the dramatic subject of AMETHYST was reminiscent of the “U.S.S. Panay Incident” of 1937, but Earl needed a writing plan.  He chose a narrative form that relied on recreated dialogue throughout, all of it bolted into place with quotation marks. It is a device eschewed by professional historians who must be able to hang their hat on every piece of evidence they employ, but common to newspaper prose in which heavy paraphrasing is accepted as a literal record. Today YANGTSE INCIDENT might be classed “Creative Non-fiction”, and is the only type of popular history or biography that actually sells to general publishers.   Sometimes it works, but often it falls flat, as in the following snippets which betray Lawrence Earl’s total lack of knowledge of the Chinese, who are rendered as caricatures in the book:

Obviously somebody has made mistake,” the Chinese Naval Chief of Staff said querulously. “I’ll ask the people in this hut if they’ve heard anything about your ship.”  There was a wood-and-mud hut on the bank of the creek. Candlelight showed through the cracks. The Chinese officer knocked at the door and spoke in nasal sing-song to a fisherman who came to answer
…  Just at midnight [Lt. Commander] Kerans saw what looked like the quick flash of an electric torch not far ahead. Then he heard an outlandish jumble of sound.  As he came closer to the sound he realized that it was a large group of Chinese civilians, chattering in their sing-song tongue.

JOHN BULL magazine, advertisement for Yangtse Incident

His 199 page book confines itself to the dramatic period, April – July 1949, when British warships were bottled up on the Yangtse River, above Shanghai, by the advancing Chinese Communist forces.  Royal Navy casualties were heavy. The vessel was then patched up in Shanghai, which had not yet fallen to the Reds. After the breakout, an adoring British public celebrated AMETHYST and her crew and Earl got to work.  All potted profiles of Lawrence Earl you encounter with a Google search state rather baldly that his book “was made into a movie”.  This is not correct.  Certainly the titles were identical and the Earl book made a ready reference for the filmmakers as it is tightly chronological, but the script was an original work of novelist Eric Ambler, who had written an earlier successful war film, THE CRUEL SEA.  Ambler was given free access to official Admiralty records and the full assistance of Lieutenant-Commander John S. Kerans, who had commanded AMETHYST and was seconded to the production company. He wrote a detailed report on the making of the film. 

H.M.S. AMETHYST - The Official Pictorial Record, 1949
 H.M.S. AMETHYST - The Official Pictorial Record was the first book, published in 1949.
It has 43 photos, two maps,  and a a complete crew list. No doubt Lawrence Earl found it a
handy reference.  His goal was 

The Director, Michael Anderson, delivered a film composed of 455 scenes, and shot entirely in England in 1956. Kerans, in discussing script development, recalled that the original treatment “bore little or no resemblance to any known facts”. He would only allow that the shooting script was based “in part, on a book written in 1950” and leaves us the firm impression that Earl had no role in the film production. Because the film was low-budget, with no hope of recreating the tumultuous welcome AMETHYST received at Hong Kong, the Director did copy Lawrence Earl's dramatic story ending, the reading of Commander Kerans' triumphant signal: "HAVE REJOINED THE FLEET.  AM SOUTH OF WOOSUNG. NO DAMAGE OR CASUALTIES.  GOD SAVE THE KING."

Premiere YANGTSE INCIDENT, (Pathe) London 1957
The premiere showing of YANGSTE INCIDENT was held at the Plaza Theatre in London.  The 1957 event was recorded by a British Pathe news cameraman  and can be viewed on Youtube.  [Watch Film]

What Lawrence Earl did do was write a radio play, based on his book YANGTSE INCIDENT, which was broadcast in England in 1960.

Many book reviewers and readers  have mis-perceived the identity of Lawrence Earl, and made assumptions.  I will explore this in Part 2 of my article. The persistent errors are due to Earl’s rigid adherence to an Anglo-Canadian identity, a persona that informs his writing style.  His adopted name was his permanent identity and he had it legally registered before his death.  His original Wikipedia page did not even mention that he was Jewish Canadian.  That has since been corrected.  Returning then, to the author’s dedication in YANGSTE INCIDENT, we read “To H.F.W.”   This was of course his father Herman F. Wiezel.  Mr. Earl would go on to dedicate his second book to his mother - “For Anna”.   The subject of his choosing to pass as an Anglo-Canadian was possibly a sensitive one at home, more so when he was starting out, but his family was always supportive and proud of him.  A lucrative literary career was launched and there was never any thought given of returning to the port of Saint John.  


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