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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