Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germans (the Germania) by Tacitus (98)

Cornelius Tacitus lived from around 54 to 120 AD. He’s famous for his full-length histories of the early Roman Empire – the Annals and the Histories. Before these, in 98, he wrote two short monographs, a eulogy to his father-in-law Agricola, and a study of the Germanic peoples beyond the border of the Roman Empire – De Origine et situ Germanorum or Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germanics.

It is the usual mish-mash of hearsay, twaddle and detailed, real information – it is the task of scholars to disentangle the two. Tacitus most improbably claims the Germanic tribes worship the Roman gods:

Of the gods, Mercury is the principal object of their adoration; whom, on certain days, they think it lawful to propitiate even with human victims. To Hercules and Mars they offer the animals usually allotted for sacrifice. Some of the Suevi also perform sacred rites to Isis.

He confidently makes sweeping statements: All the Germans do this; without exception they do that: which scholars have to validate or invalidate from the handful of other sources:

In every house the children grow up, thinly and meanly clad, to that bulk of body and limb which we behold with wonder. Every mother suckles her own children, and does not deliver them into the hands of servants and nurses. No indulgence distinguishes the young master from the slave. They lie together amidst the same cattle, upon the same ground, till age separates, and valor marks out, the free-born.

Is any of that true? Could be. Tacitus talks confidently about the Germans’ myths and legends:

In their ancient songs, which are their only records or annals, they celebrate the god Tuisto, sprung from the earth, and his son Mannus, as the fathers and founders of their race.

No other source mentions a Tuisto. It is interesting to follow up the reference to Tuisto and see what shapes scholars have twisted themselves into trying to assimilate Tacitus to what we do know: could Tuisto be etymologically linked to the Ymir of Snorri? Or, as a recent scholar points out, could the whole sentence  derive from Tacitus’s “simple ignorance of the facts”?

By far the most interesting thing about the Germania is the impact it’s had on history and on the Germans themselves:

In medieval Germany (the Holy Roman Empire), a self-designation of ‘Germanii’ was virtually never used. The name was only revived in 1471, inspired by the rediscovered text of Germania, to invoke the warlike qualities of the ancient Germans in a crusade against the Turks. Ever since its discovery, treatment of the text regarding the culture of the early Germanic peoples in ancient Germany remains strong especially in German history, philology, and ethnology studies… Beginning in 16th-century German humanism, German interest in Germanic antiquity remained acute throughout the period of Romanticism and nationalism. A scientific angle was introduced with the development of Germanic philology by Jacob Grimm in the 19th century…

The Nazis incorporated many of Tacitus’s claims about the Germanic tribes into their farrago of Nordic nonsense. In particular the fateful section about the ‘purity’ of the Germanic tribes:

I concur in opinion with those who deem the Germans never to have intermarried with other nations; but to be a race, pure, unmixed, and stamped with a distinct character. Hence a family likeness pervades the whole, though their numbers are so great: eyes stern and blue; ruddy hair; large bodies, powerful in sudden exertions, but impatient of toil and labor, least of all capable of sustaining thirst and heat. Cold and hunger they are accustomed by their climate and soil to endure.

Because of its influence on the ideologies of Pan-Germanism and Nordicism, Jewish-Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano in 1956 described Germania as ‘among the most dangerous books ever written’. Christopher Krebs, a professor at Stanford University, argues in his A Most Dangerous Book, that Germania played a major role in the formation of the core concepts of Nazi ideology.

Read Tacitus’s Germania on Project Gutenberg

Map of The Roman Empire in 116 AD and Germania Magna, with some Germanic tribes mentioned by Tacitus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Roman Empire in 116 AD and Germania Magna, with some Germanic tribes mentioned by Tacitus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A Shropshire Lad by AE Housman(1896)

The Classics professor Alfred Edward Housman surprised his students and colleagues when, in 1896, he published a collection of 63 short lyric poems which his publisher persuaded him to title A Shropshire Lad. Tennyson was responsible for the view that poetry should be pure and lyrical, flying far above the sordid realities of Victorian England. His acolyte Francis Palgrave produced a Golden Treasury of English Verse (1861) which selected with care only the purest of thin, high, quavering lyrical poetry from the previous 450 years of hugely varied verse and poetry.

The poems in A Shropshire Lad continue down that narrowing avenue, producing short, rhyming verse which aspires to a purity untainted by real-life diction or attitudes or events or activities, instead creating a set of bloodless variations on half a dozen stock sentimental themes: the soldier going off to war; handsome young men doomed to die young because they are different, either through suicide or fighting or being hanged for crimes of passion: in short, the narcissistic mentality of an angsty 15-year old.

All this is set in a largely fictional Shropshire of the mind, an imaginary, a Platonic Form of an English rural county which, however, has been taken over by Thomas Hardy and is populated by lads (18-21) who woo lasses who are either reluctant or die young and are carried to the churchyard where they join the other restless souls underground, at which the lads leave their depressing lives to take the Queen’s shilling and go fight in one of the Empire’s countless little wars, or stay at home to become bad ‘uns, to murder or rob and swing for it (Housman is morbidly obsessed with hanging).

The extreme purity of the vocabulary, the idealised English landscape and the teenage sentimentality of the thoughts made it a surprise bestseller. I was interested to learn from the Wikipedia article that the Boer War had an impact on its sales and influence, that “Housman’s nostalgic depiction of rural life and young men’s early deaths struck a chord with English readers”. Of course this chord was to ring even louder during and after the vastly more terrible slaughter of the Great War, and established Housman’s thin pallid verse as a coffee-table favourite.

Poem XL

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Why, the sceptical reader is tempted to ask, can you not go there again? Oh because I can’t, I am doomed, I am a lost soul, oh can’t you see, oh growing up is sooo hard. Surely it is not only the rural setting which represents an escape from the urban life most of us lead, but the essentially adolescent sentiments of the verse which represent a Hollyoaks-style escape from the complex problems of adult life, careers, money, wives and children, which underpin its enduring appeal.

Various of the 63 lyrics have been set by various composers, most notably George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney. For my money the Butterworth settings are head and shoulders above the others; with his music these pallid lyrics achieve a depth and resonance the words alone lack made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Butterworth himself was killed in the Great War and so his songs about doomed young men have a horrible irony.

On the life and character of Julius Agricola by Tacitus (98)

Before he composed the weighty historical works for which he is famous, the Roman historian Tacitus (55 -120) wrote three short monographs – a history of oratory, an ethnographic study of the German tribes, and this eulogy of his father-in law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, one of the earliest governors of Roman Britain.

The text is called De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, or On the life and character of Julius Agricola and is a slender 50 pages long in the Penguin edition.

We get the general shape of Agricola’s career but with a frustrating lack of dates (obviously the Romans dated things differently from us, anyway), or places or other people, without all the specifics which make a biography interesting. In fact, as Harold Mattingley says in his introduction, it is more the biography of a career than a person.

What comes across more strongly than Agricola is Tacitus’s deep disillusion at the times he has lived through. Tacitus writing about the reign of Domitian (81-96) sounds like a Soviet writing after the death of Stalin.

The triumvirs were commissioned to burn in the forum those works of splendid genius. They fancied, forsooth, that in that fire the voice of the Roman people, the freedom of the Senate, and the conscience of the human race were perishing, while at the same time they banished the teachers of philosophy, and exiled every noble pursuit, that nothing good might anywhere confront them. Certainly we showed a magnificent example of patience; as a former age had witnessed the extreme of liberty, so we witnessed the extreme of servitude, when the informer robbed us of the interchange of speech and hearing. We should have lost memory as well as voice, had it been as easy to forget as to keep silence. (Chapter 2)

What if during those fifteen years, a large portion of human life, many were cut off by ordinary casualties, and the ablest fell victims to the Emperor’s rage, if a few of us survive, I may almost say, not only others but our own selves, survive, though there have been taken from the midst of life those many years which brought the young in dumb silence to old age, and the old almost to the very verge and end of existence!  (Chapter 3)

In a familiar topos Tacitus compares the uncivilised but brave Britons favourably with the tamed, and thus slack, Gauls.

The Britons exhibit more spirit as being a people whom a long peace has not yet enervated. Indeed we have understood that even the Gauls were once renowned in war; but, after a while, sloth following on ease crept over them, and they lost their courage along with their freedom. This too has happened to the long-conquered tribes of Britain; the rest are still what the Gauls once were. (Chapter 11)

In fact Tacitus is not ambivalent, he is downright hostile to the so-called civilisation which Rome itself represents and brings to its conquered people.

Agricola likewise provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs, and showed such a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the industry of the Gauls that they who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. Hence, too, a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the toga became fashionable. Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude. (Chapter 21)

Admittedly the following is given as part of the long set-piece speech delivered by the barbarian leader on the eve of Agricola’s great victory at the (possibly fictitious) Battle of Mons Graupius – and it was a sign of a good orator and lawyer that he could argue all sides of an argument – still, the final phrase climaxes a devastating critique of Rome’s greed and rapaciousness which echoes other comments scattered throughout the text, so powerful it has become almost proverbial.

To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace. (Chapter 30)

Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

On the life and character of Julius Agricola, English translation on Wikisource.

Photo of Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings by Robert Ferguson (2010)

The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings is a brilliant book. It is a scholarly, systematic and scrupulous investigation of the phenomenon of the Vikings. Roberts carefully weighs the evidence about every aspect of the farflung activities of the amazing men who discovered America, settled Greenland, invaded Britain and France, became the special guard to the Byzantine Emperor and – the biggest surprise to me – founded Russia!

The message repeated in chapter after chapter is that the evidence from the Dark Ages is so pitifully scanty that most of the subject is shrouded in confusion and uncertainty. Thus: nobody knows the origin of the word, which language it comes from or what it means; nobody can agree the date of the “Viking Era”; there is no agreement on the definition of the Vikings: was it an ethnic group, a racial group, men from particular countries, or was it simply a form of behaviour, that men from certain northern cultures would, as the Old Norse has it, fara i viking, which seems to mean ‘go a-viking’, as if viking is an activity or profession.

Or, alhough Viking trader-warriors from modern Sweden spent decades clearing the river routes south to the Black Sea and in doing so founded the city of Kiev, though they were widely described as the “Rus” and though this activity was the basis of the modern state of Russia, nobody knows what Rus means or where it came from.

Nobody knows what pagans did or believed. All the shrines were destroyed by Christians. None of htese people could write: they recorded absolutely nothing of their activities. Only one four line prayer exists anywhere, embedded in a long poem in the Poetic Edda. There are a pitiful handful of eye witness accounts of pagan Viking behaviour, none of which are very clear, there’s a number of runestones which barely convey anything, there is a handful of primitive picture stones. I understand better than before why, against the background of this pitiful lack of evidence, the Poetic Edda, the collection of poems and the Prose Edda – the synopsis of Norse legends – both set down in 12th century Iceland are so enormously valuable.

However, as the book progresses, an idea emerges which develops into Ferguson’s central thesis: this, like everything in the book, derives from a scrupulous weighing of the evidence, and it is that the Viking phenomenon was a religious war. The idea is broached in the chapter about the start of the Viking era (different in every country): in Britain it (notoriously) started with the brutal attack on Lindisfarne monastery in 793. Ferguson links this to the extremely violent and intimidating campaign of Charlemagne to convert northern Europe to Christianity which got underway in the 780s and targeted the Saxons who lived south of Denmark. As Charlemagne’s forces invaded Saxony, burning pagan shrines, forcibly converting pagans and killing resisters, thousands fled north into Jutland and, Ferguson argues, this may be what lies behind the sudden eruption of revenge attacks by the pagan men from the sea who we call the Vikings. Wherever the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian attackers landed, they went out of their way to loot and destroy churches and monasteries and to torture, rape and kill priests, monks and nuns.

Those within converted Europe, the Christians who wrote what records we have about the Vikings, the victims who were attacked again and again and again from about 800 to about 1050, they disagree about where the Vikings came from, whether they were blonde or dark-haired, what language they spoke etc – but on one thing they all agreed – they were heathen, pagani, unbelievers, infidels, illiterate outsiders, fired by terrifying ferocity and anger against everything connected with Christianity, going out of their way to loot and desecrate.

Which led me to wonder whether this period shouldn’t qualify as the First Wars of Religion in Europe – preceding the 150 years of carnage sparked by the Protestant Reformation (1500-1650), a period we should perhaps now rename the Second Wars of Religion.

This is a marvellous book, all the more awe-inspiring and romantic for the scrupulous care with which every scrap of evidence and every conflicting theory or interpretation is weighed and assessed.

Book cover of The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson

Book cover of The Hammer and the Cross by Robert Ferguson

HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean (1955)

HMS Ulysses was Maclean’s first and arguably best novel. It describes the ordeal of a ship on one of the notorious Murmansk conveys, taking oil, weapons, supplies to beleaguered USSR up over the top of Scandianavia, through the Arctic Ocean in one of the most pitiless and harsh environments known to man. MacLean, born 1922 and so 17 when the war started, had himself served on these convoys during the War. He knew whereof he spoke. To recap his war career:

He joined the Royal Navy in 1941, serving with the ranks of Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Leading Torpedo Operator. He was first assigned to PS Bournemouth Queen, a converted excursion ship fitted for anti-aircraft guns, on duty off the coasts of England and Scotland. From 1943, he served in HMS Royalist, a Dido-class light cruiser. In Royalist he saw action in 1943 in the Atlantic theatre, on two Arctic convoys and escorting carrier groups in operations against Tirpitz and other targets off the Norwegian coast. In 1944 he and the ship served in the Mediterranean theatre as part of the invasion of southern France and in helping to sink blockade runners off Crete and bombard Milos in the Aegean. In 1945, in the Far East theatre, MacLean and Royalist saw action escorting carrier groups in operations against Japanese targets in Burma, Malaya, and Sumatra. After the Japanese surrender, Royalist helped evacuate liberated POWs from Changi Prison in Singapore. (Wikipedia)

From the first words the tone is one of immense weariness as Admiral Starr confronts the captain and senior officers of HMS Ulysses to demand an explanation for the full scale mutiny which broke out in Scapa Flow harbour. This scene sets the atmosphere of absolute mental and physical exhaustion combined with stress and nervous tension under which these men operated. With 24 hours they are putting back to see as part of a convoy – FR77 – linking up with a pack of merchantmen carrying vital supplies to the beleaguered USSR.

The novel a) introduces us to a large set of characters among the ship’s crew b) describes the events of the ill-fated convoy FR77 as it battles a massive storm, the routine horrors of the freezing Arctic weather, and repeated attacks by German ships and the terrifying U-boats. Aboard ship are:

  • Vice-Admiral Tyndall, formerly known as Farmer Giles, now exhausted and disillusioned, who breaks down after making a series of disastrous miscalculations about the attacking German ships and U-boats; returns to the bridge in his pyjamas and soon after dies of frostbite and shock.
  • Captain Richard Vallery, dying of TB who nonetheless, heroically, rallies the crew and leads by example; until he finally, inevitably, dies, his last thoughts for the crew.
  • Surgeon-Commander Brooks, “Old Socrates”
  • Johnny Nicholls, his assistant, who cleans out the various bombed stations, scooping up grisly bits of disintegrated and burnt human body, before being perilously transferred by breeches buoy to the Sirrus (I was sure he’d die) and ending up being the only survivor of the Ulysses who, in the heart-wrenching Epilogue, makes his final report to the Admiralty.
  • Commander Turner who takes over command on Vallery’s death and is last seen supporting two ratings in the sea after Ulysses’ death.
  • Navigator: the Honourable Andrew Carpenter, also known as the Kapok Kid, infallibly correct with his navigations, who has an eeries premonition of his own death and is, sure enough, peppered with machine gun fire from a Stuka.
  • Lieutenant-Commander Carrington, a natural seaman with intuitive grasp of weather conditions, who survives the ordeal.
  • Chief Bentley, takes & receives signals, has his face blown off by the Condor attack.
  • Master-at-Arms Hastings: stern disciplinarian: sacked for his vindictiveness towards Ralston.
  • Gunnery Officer Etherton: shoots himself after a mistake causes the death of the padre, the reverend Winthrop, Able Seaman Charteris and Peters.
  • Able Seaman Ralston, his brother killed in the mutiny, his mother and family killed in a German bombing raid on Croydon; he is forced to fire the torpedo which sinks the stricken freighter Vytura, thus killing his own father.
  • Sub-Lieutenant Carslake, an incompetent fool whom Ralston punches to find himself on a charge; who goes mad and tries to kill Ralston in the aftermath of the Condor attack, killing himself in the process.
  • Chief Petty Officer Hartlet who accompanies the dying captain round his ship.
  • Signalman Courtney, vapourised when a German shell hits the Radio Room.
  • Able Seaman Ferry, whose arm gets caught and pulled into a cable winch and whose life is saved by Ralston’s quick thinking, but who then falls where the railings have been destroyed and slips helplessly overboard to be mashed by the ship’s propellors.
  • Chief Stoker Hendry in the boiler rooms.
  • Engineer Commander Dodson in the Engine Room.
  • Chrysler, the 17 year-old Able Seaman who spots the glint of the U-boat’s telescope, but lives to see his brother eviscerated by airplane fire in the Asdic chamber.
  • Assistant Cook McQuater, his boots soaked with freezing seawater in the arsenal, who sets the sprinklers off to kill the fire threatening the armoury even though he knows the hatchway out is jammed ie who drowns.
  • Stoker Riley, the apelike product of a Liverpool slum, a petty thief who stirs up the mutiny but volunteers to take coffee to Dodson in the damaged steering shaft.
  • Able Seaman Pedersen who superhumanly opens the jammed hatch to the Low Power Room allowing Brierly and the other trapped sailors to be rescued, before himself jumping in and pulling the hatch shut, dooming himself in order to save the ship.
  • The crews of all the merchantmen, destroyers, Condors and Stukas who are blowm uo, burned alive, drowned, frozen to death and otherwise destroyed in war’s horrifying futility…

MacLean’s style is both pared-down and rhetorical. Factual descriptions are given in a clipped, textbook style – to the extent of there being a number of purely factual footnotes throughout the book, correcting technical and historical fact – but psychological portraits often use rhetorial techniques, particularly repetition, to convey moods and feelings, especially of the extremity of exhaustion and physical ordeal the men are going through.

I read this book when I was 11 or 12 and was struck by the way the men swear softly, viciously, fluently. None of the swearwords I’ve ever learned in English or other languages, since, have come close to capturing Maclean’s description of the muttered, fluent swearing of men pushed past the bounds of endurance.

The horrors the book describes are hard to assimilate. That our grandfathers endured times like these, scenes and experiences like these, beggars belief. The scene where captain Vallery deliberately steers through the hundreds of sailors burning to death in the oil released by the torpedoed tanker Blue Ranger in order to put them out of their agony is hard to forget…

Book cover of HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

Book cover of HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

The seeds of MacLean’s later success and failure are here. The awesome scale of the horrific subject matter here redeems the unrelenting negativity of the characters, their reliance on alcohol and fluent swearing to get them through, their tiredness and jadedness, and their ironic wit in the face of brutality. But these same characteristics will then be appended to all the male leads in all Maclean’s books, the bitterness, the jadedness, the world-weariness, the technical expertise mixed with bone-crunching physical injuries until it becomes a formula. A formula which served him well for at least the first ten of his 29 bestselling thrillers, but a formula none the less, and one which ran increasingly threadbare in the second half of his career.

The MacLean formula

  • Technical expertise with equipment, speedboats, scuba gear, cars, guns
  • Tough guy heroics combined with no-longer-young male worldweariness

The topos of tired, old men

The figures of the dying Captain Vallely and the Vice-Admiral Tyndall, two older men pushed beyond the bounds of endurance to their deaths, reminded me of the characters in John Le Carre’s Karla trilogy, particularly ‘Control’, the ageing head of MI5 who is pushed into retirement and dies a disillusioned man; and of Smiley himself who has officially retired at the start of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. These kinds of thriller aren’t exactly aimed at pension-age men; maybe it’s that they appeal to the archetype of the exhausted, venerable old man (all four of the men named above are Good Men, honest old timers who’ve served their country well). They are noble, venerable and somehow too good for the horrible conditions of the modern world. To make a rather grandiose link they are similar to King Hrothgar in Beowulf or King Priam in the Iliad – aged, venerable men who give the entire story a kind of epic grandeur, a sense of the older generation inevitably but nobly passing away.

The first 22 Alistair MacLean novels

1955 HMS Ulysses – war story about a doomed Arctic convoy.
1957 The Guns of Navarone – war story about commandos who blow up superguns on a Greek island.
1957 South by Java Head – a motley crew of soldiers, sailors, nurses and civilians endure a series of terrible ordeals in their bid to escape the pursuing Japanese forces.
1959 The Last Frontier – secret agent Michael Reynolds rescues a British scientist from communists in Hungary.
1959 Night Without End – Arctic scientist Mason saves plane crash survivors from baddies who have stolen a secret missile guidance system.
1961 Fear is the Key – government agent John Talbot defeats a gang seeking treasure in a crashed plane off Florida.
1961 The Dark Crusader – counter-espionage agent John Bentall defeats a gang who plan to hold the world to ransom with a new intercontinental missile.
1962 The Golden Rendezvous – first officer John Carter defeats a gang who hijack his ship with a nuclear weapon.
1962 The Satan Bug – agent Pierre Cavell defeats an attempt to blackmail the government using a new supervirus.
1963 Ice Station Zebra – MI6 agent Dr John Carpenter defeats spies who have secured Russian satellite photos of US missile bases, destroyed the Arctic research base of the title and nearly sink the nuclear sub sent to rescue them.
1966 When Eight Bells Toll – British Treasury secret agent Philip Calvert defeats a gang who have been hijacking ships carrying bullion off the Scottish coast.
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone The three heroes from Guns of Navarone parachute into Yugoslavia to blow up a dam and destroy two German armoured divisions.
1969 Puppet on a Chain – Interpol agent Paul Sherman battles a grotesquely sadistic heroin-smuggling gang in Amsterdam.
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès – British agent Neil Bowman foils a gang of gypsies who are smuggling Russian nuclear scientists via the south of France to China.
1971 Bear Island – Doctor Marlowe deals with a spate of murders aboard a ship full of movie stars and crew heading into the Arctic Circle.
1973 The Way to Dusty Death – World number one racing driver Johnny Harlow acts drunk and disgraced in order to foil a gang of heroin smugglers and kidnappers.
1974 Breakheart Pass – The Wild West, 1873. Government agent John Deakin poses as a wanted criminal in order to foil a gang smuggling guns to Injuns in the Rockies and planning to steal government gold in return.
1975 Circus – The CIA ask trapeze genius Bruno Wildermann to travel to an unnamed East European country, along with his circus, and use his skills to break into a secret weapons laboratory.
1976 The Golden Gate – FBI agent Paul Revson is with the President’s convoy when it is hijacked on the Golden Gate bridge by a sophisticated gang of crooks who demand an outrageous ransom. Only he – and the doughty doctor he recruits and the pretty woman journalist -can save the President!
1977 – Seawitch – Oil executives hire an unhinged oil engineer, Cronkite, to wreak havoc on the oil rig of their rival, Lord Worth, who is saved by his beautiful daughter’s boyfriend, an ex-cop and superhero.
1977 – Goodbye California – Deranged muslim fanatic, Morro, kidnaps nuclear physicists and technicians in order to build atomic bombs which he detonates a) in the desert b) off coastal California, in order to demand a huge ransom. Luckily, he has also irritated maverick California cop, Ryder – by kidnapping his wife – so Ryder tracks him down, disarms his gang and kills him.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (2006)

The Uncommon Reader is a short (100 pages) novella by Alan Bennett, dry, clipped, funny, understated, with some-thought provoking notions and brilliant phrasing.

Plot The Queen stumbles across the travelling lending library in the Palace grounds and out of politeness borrows a book. She starts reading. She becomes intrigued at new thoughts and feelings. She develops sensibility ie noticing people and details, becomes less dutiful, more enquiring. This unsettles everyone from her Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. After a discursive middle which explores the nature of reading, what it does to you, why we do it, the book moves quickly to a surprise, or shock, ending.

The camp/gay environment of the Royal Household is very well conveyed, all those gay equerries, a royal milieu familiar to Bennett from his play about the gay traitor Anthony Blunt, from The Madness of George III etc. He seems perfectly at home putting pithy dialogue into the mouths of her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh.

And what dialogue! Bennett has been writing dialogue for 50 years, from the Cambridge Review, through his countless plays, TV monologues and film scripts, along with the brief concentrated format of his diaries: the short form, and a pithy abbreviated style, are his thing and reading the prose is a delight:

‘We have a travelling library’, said the Queen to her husband that evening. ‘Comes every Wednesday.’
‘Jolly good. Wonders never cease.’
‘You remember Oklahoma?’
‘Yes. We saw it when we were engaged.’ Extraordinary to think of it, the dashing blond boy he had been.
‘Was that Cecil Beaton?’ said the Queen.
‘No idea. Never liked the fellow. Green shoes.’
‘Smelled delicious.’
‘What’s that?’
‘A book. I borrowed it.’
‘Dead, I suppose.’
‘Who?’
‘The Beaton fellow.’
‘Oh yes. Everyone’s dead.’
‘Good show, though.’
And he went off to bed glumly singing ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ as the Queen opened her book.

Bennett’s books are small, domestic, homely. He is a national treasure because, under his hand, everything turns into Ratty and Moley: vide George III and his wife wonderfully domesticated as Mr and Mrs King; here, the Prime Minister is an easily confused figure of fun, not the war criminal Bennett probably thinks him.

As to the thoughts on reading, they are nicely phrased:

‘Of course’, said the Queen, ‘but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.’ (page 22)

The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something lofty about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal… (Page 30)

But for all the crafted dialogue, the limpid style, the witticisms, the out-and-out jokes, the sly quotes and the knowing references to contemporary authors, ultimately, like all Bennett, we are left a little empty and unsatisfied. Is that it? I wanted more meat. The choice of the Queen as subject turns out not to be revolutionary or disruptive but to ensure the book is small in scope and intention. The reading bug makes her less mechanical in her brief chats with her subjects: she actually starts asking them what they’re reading, which throws the subjects and her staff; and then she realises she enjoys writing down the thoughts that reading prompts – maybe she should record them in a notebook or something?

That’s about it. The text, like the subject matter, feels controlled and safe and cosy. Like the proverbial Chinese meal, I enjoyed the flavours and colours as I read it; but an hour or two later I was hungry again.

Ice Cold In Alex by Christopher Landon (1957)

An alcoholic British officer, Anson, and his faithful NCO and mechanic, Tom Pugh, work in the ambulance corps in Tobruk, during the North Africa campaign. As the Afrika Corps advances to seal off the city and capture it, Ansom is ordered to flee with two nurses, trying and escape eastwards to the safety of Alexandria (‘Alex’). To avoid the advancing Germans they take the risky decision to head south and cross the hostile desert in their leaky old ambulance. On this off-road trip they pick up a ‘South African’ officer they slowly come to suspect is a German spy and go on to face danger, privation, enemy attack but, worst of all, the challenge of the most inhospitable environment on earth, the Sahara Desert.

The title refers to Captain Ansom’s vow that he won’t drink until they reach a particular bar in Alex, where he will buy his motley crew a round of ice-cold lager. Having read the book I realise this isn’t just the opportunity for a Carlsberg ad, Anson is a genuine alcoholic and the first part of the book details his attempts to stop drinking hard liquor: the vow isn’t that he will have a beer when he reaches Alex; it is that he won’t drink any alcohol until he drinks that ice cold beer in Alex.

The novel Ice Cold in Alex was 12 years in the making and the struggle shows. Laondon’s style is very uneven: For the most part it’s a kind of mid-20th century British English like, maybe, Graham Greene; but then there are sudden spells of tough guy Hemingwayesque simplicity – simplicity of adjectives, no contractions – should not, had not, would not – which come in whenever Landon is conveying an atmosphere of manliness, the unspoken bonds between real men in a tight spot etc, for example describing the very masculine theme of the alcoholism which Captian Ansom is battling:

He threw the whiskey back in the locker and they did not speak again until they had been challenged at the tank screen. So thin, so pitifully few. (Page 13).

The Hemingway simplicity alternates with Landon’s default style which is often clotted and unclear, often surprisingly badly written. (Compare & contrast W. Stanley Moss from Eton, the author of Ill Met By Moonlight, schooled in Latin and Greek, whose thoughts and prose have a wonderful clarity and crispness, a sublime confidence that he and his plight can be viewed from above, detached, olympian, ironic, amused.)

Landon’s story, by contrast, is of ordinary men right at the end of their tether, of nervous exhaustion, alcoholism barely held in check, men at snapping point. Whereas the posh Billy Moss and Paddy Leigh-Fermor aristocratically don’t even know the Morse Code for the vital signal they have to send, in Ice Cold it is inly Anson’s detailed knowledge of the desert and Pugh’s mechanical know-how which save them. Two utterly different worlds.

Experimental To my surprise in the middle of what had seemed a workaday if thrilling story, there appeared some experimental stream-of-consciousness sections – We get the direct stream-of-consciousness of the dying nurse – we see the point of view of the struggling Anson and then of Zimmerman the German spy. But then, to my absolute amazement, there is a delirious section seen from the point of view of the ambulance, Katy! This delirious flight of fancy passingly reminded me of William Faulkner’s more baroque hallucinations.

But then I realised the notion of making an ambulance talk about itself, its pistons and cam shafts and horse power etc, reminds me of the 1895 Kipling short story, The Ship That Found Herself, which is little more than a description of how all the parts of a newly made ship hold it together and grow into their roles on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Making me also realise how Kipling – the man who celebrated work and the work ethic and especially the work of the unsung mechanics and engineers who built the Empire, the man who wrote McAndrew’s Hymn, the love song of a Scottish steamer engineer for his engines – would have liked this story and the character of Pugh, the bluff, unflappable mechanic, in love with his engines, solid and reliable.

The appearance of James Joyce and Rudyard Kipling in the novel, along with Ernest Hemingway, confirm my sense of Landon’s effort to find a voice of his own. In this respect, the novel not only tells its gripping and highly moral story, but its style enacts the author’s battle with the English language of the early 1950s, tired from the War, tired of its stiff-upper-lipness, but struggling to find its own voice, a voice to adequately describe the modern world, all the time assailed by the powerful influence of America on one side, and the siren call of fashionable Modernism on the other.

Love As well as a war story ICIA is a love story but from a far-distant time: we learn early on that stolid dependable Pugh’s wife was killed in an air-raid and then, very slowly and very plausibly, he and Murdoch the nurse fall in love. However, even this tender love story jolts the modern reader because they suddenly progress from common kindness to holding hands and then – bang! – proposing and being accepted. Autres temps… The whole bitter-sweet universe of sex, the subject of so much modern fiction, is simply skipped. You can feel and taste the sweetness and innocence, gone forever from our knowing world…

The movie The book had such impact that it was made into a film the very next year, 1958. The film is remembered and marketed as a classic war movie but it is a travesty of the book. John Mills plays Captain Anson and is a slight, weedy, unmanly, unthreatening figure, not in the slightest authoritative or scarey. When he faints Harry Andrews’ Tom Pugh picks him up as if he was a girl. In the book he is a man’s man driven by nervous exhaustion to make some bad judgements but whose deep knowledge of the desert ultimately saves them; in the film John Mills is a weedy berk who makes one bad decision after another, whose stubbornness is directly responsible for the nurse dying, whose mad overdriving breaks the springs, who nearly locks the engine by overheating it, and so on.

It is therefore inexplicable that the ravishingly beautiful Sylvia Sims should fall for such a loser. Only the need to pander to the lowest common denominator of the sentimental movie-going public mars the film with such an unbelievable and and crass gesture.

Meanwhile, the quiet, shy Tom Pugh, deeply damaged by the death of his wife, who pours his soul into the loving tender care for the ambulance and its failing motor is played by the badly miscast bluff, brawny bruiser Harry Andrews. He plays it with restraint and sensitivity but he isn’t the character from the novel and so it’s not surprising the scriptwriters (who included the original author) are forced to make Sylvia Sims fall for the weedy John Mills. It would have had more integrity if the woman, for once in a movie, didn’t fall in love with someone.

And Pugh’s tender loving, knowledgeable care for Katy, the ambulance, a central thread which holds the novel together and gives it such a special flavour – is almost completely absent from the movie.

Ill Met by Moonlight by William Stanley Moss (1950)

The phenomenally posh introduction to Ill Met by Moonlight, by Iain Moncrieffe, describes the house in wartime Cairo shared by a Polish countess, Billy Maclean (Eton and Scots Greys), David Smiley (Eton and Horse Guards), Patrick Leigh-Fermor (King’s Canterbury, Irish Guards), Xan Fielding (Charterhouse), and the author, W Stanley Moss (Charterhouse). They called it Tara, legendary home of the high Irish kings. W Stanley Moss, the author of the diary which makes up the text, is described as:

Tall and devilish languid, with that usual rather attractive droop of unaffected self-deprecation twisting the corners of his mouth.

Note the Regency use of the adjective ‘devilish’ rather than the correct adverb ‘devilishly’. These chaps look back to Byron, Robin Hood, King Arthur, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Treasure Island. It’s all a bally wheeze.

These awesomely posh chaps have a jolly war undertaking various secret missions into the Balkans and Greece. ‘Ill Met By Moonlight’ is Billy Moss’s diary, written as it happened, of a secret mission whereby he and Paddy were dropped by boat off Crete, linked up with a motley crew of Cretan partisans and, despite various mishaps, manage to kidnap General Heinrich Kreipe, the German in command of Crete, then move him around various safe houses until rendezvousing with an escape boat.

Moss and compeers have an effortless superiority over the beastly Hun and the colourful Cretans. They have received the best education in Britain, maybe the world, and boy do they know it. The writing is confident, witty, aloof, detached, olympian in its irony, effortlessly cultured in its references to Shakespeare, Villon, Dante. The title is, of course, from A MIdsummernight’s Dream.

It is typical of their aristocratic amateurism that when it comes time for Billy and Paddy to signal the approaching motorboat with Morse code flashes from a lamp it turns out neither of them knows Morse Code. They find this hilarious.

I think this is the attitude which Evelyn Waugh castigates, while also loving, in his great Sword of Honour trilogy. I also believe this attitude didn’t endear itself to the Americans when they finally started fighting alongside our chaps.

The Cretan peasants married to patch up an interfamily feud they hilariously name Mr Montague and Mrs Capulet. They describe a partisan’s ‘Caractacus poise’, the noted murderer Jonny Katsias has the smile of a sated aristocrat. In my favourite moment, Moss writes that Dennis:

has grown an impressive beard which he treats with the affection of a spinster aunt for her favourite cat.

If Oscar Wilde had fought in the Second World War… The very last sentence of the book imagines these heroes and dandies after the war settling down by the fireside of their favourite club. And that is where the Angry Young Men of the 1950s, and then the beardy drug-taking revolutionaries of the 1960s, found them, wittily retelling their tales of derring-do.

 Ill Met by Moonlight - first edition cover (Wikimedia Commons)

Ill Met by Moonlight – first edition cover (Wikimedia Commons)

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