Geoffrey Pyke (1893−1948) was just starting Cambridge when his account of his daring escape from a World War I German internment camp became a bestseller. “A pure English freak,” as he called himself, Pyke then taught himself the basics of the commodities markets, to finance the progressive school he created to educate his son. When a little too much free-love destroyed his marriage, Pyke went to ground, only re-emerging to tackle the rise of fascism, which became his life’s focus. Instead of just raising funds to fight Franco, he devised an industrial scheme to enable British workers to rebuild ambulances and motorcycles for the Spanish Republicans. Watching the rise of fascism in Germany, Pyke trained Gallup-style undercover interviewers to reveal popular opposition to Hitler. When Britain went to war, Pyke joined Mountbatten’s think-tank, devising snowmobiles for occupied Norway, iceberg-ships for the U‑boat infested Atlantic.
Pyke’s unique creative process was key to the success of his many heterodox schemes. He believed it wasn’t so hard finding the solution to a problem, as identifying the correct problem in the first place. Sometimes this meant turning a problem on its head: if the Nazis were studying the Jewish Question, Pyke would study the Nazi Question. Rearranging perspectives on a problem opened doors to new avenues for research, which, predictably, would be rejected by all but the rare “early adopter” types. Alas, if it was hard for Pyke to find creative support during the War, suspicions of his Soviet connections left him with even fewer allies in the Cold War that followed.
Author Hemming handles Pyke’s suicide gracefully, ending the book with a nuanced appreciation of Pyke’s very real contributions to modern technology — from underwater oil pipelines to Pykrete — and to our understanding of the creative process itself. While this biography covers a lot of ground, it is a completely absorbing read. Bibliography, illustrations, index, notes.
- Nicholas Kulish: The Champagne Spy
- They Dared Return: The True Story of Jewish Spies Behind the Lines in Nazi Germany by Patrick K. O’Donnell
- The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.