My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd (1999)

[The Bosnian War] was a playground of the mind where the worst and most fantastic excesses of the human mind were acted out.
(My War Gone By, I Miss It So, page 172)

‘Do not chase the war. Wait, and it will come to you.’ (Croatian saying, p.220)

You can only argue so far with armed men. (p.27)

This is a gripping, searing, addictive book, a record of the three years (1993 to 1995) which the author spent covering the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, first in Croatia, then in Bosnia. Loyd gives the reader a hundred and one insights into the nature of modern warfare, into brutality and ethnic cleansing, along with explanations of the political and sociological causes of the wars, the terrible descent into internecine conflict which spread like a zombie plague across Bosnia, and descriptions of the horrific barbarities the Balkan peoples carried out against each other. Some of it will give you nightmares.

All this I expected from reviews and summaries. What I hadn’t expected was the depth and power of the autobiographical content which is woven into the narrative. This comes in two flavours. 1) First, there is a lot about Loyd’s heroin addiction, snippets and interludes woven in between the war scenes which describe the start and slow growth and then heavy weight of a serious smack habit, and his numerous attempts to go cold turkey.

2) The second autobiographical strand is the surprisingly candid and detailed descriptions (‘black childhood memories’, p.135) of his miserable childhood and seriously dysfunctional family. These only crop up a couple of times and make up only 5% of the text, but in a sense they are key to the whole narrative. Both the heroin and the compulsion to travel to the worst war scenes he could find – ‘the sensation of continuous exile’ which he’s constantly trying to escape (p.57) – stem from the deep misery of his broken family and, above all, his appalling relationship with his controlling, vindictive father.

I feel sane as anything in war, the only one there earthed to rational thought and emotion. It is peace I’ve got a problem with. (p.186)

War and heroin, in their different ways, were both for Loyd what another depressive posh man, Graham Greene, called ‘ways of escape’, refuges from his sense of unbearable unhappiness.

War and smack: I always hope for some kind of epiphany in each to lead me out, but it never happens. (p.58)

Poshness

I started off disliking Loyd because of his privileged, posh background. He comes from a posh cosmopolitan family (his great-grandfather was Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart who was not only a highly decorated British soldier but also one of the most wounded. p.60). Loyd was sent to prep school, then Eton (p.64), then on to the poshest army training available, at Sandhurst Military Academy. This was followed by five years in the Army, mostly in Northern Ireland, and then his freelance trips to Bosnia during which he wangled a gig as war correspondent with the poshest newspaper in Britain, The Times, a job he still holds. As the cherry on the cake, in 2002 Loyd married Lady Sophia Hamilton, daughter of James Hamilton, 5th Duke of Abercorn, at Baronscourt, the Duke’s 5,500 acre ancestral estate, near Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Peak posh.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, because everything I’ve mentioned (bar the marriage, which took place after this book was published) is described in the book itself, which contains a surprising amount of autobiographical material. For example, Loyd tells us a lot about his great-great-grandfather the war hero (p.60-61), about his grandfather who was a navigator in an RAF bomber (p.62), and his great-uncle who died leading a British offensive during the Great War (p.66). He comes from a family of war heroes.

But he goes to great pains to tell us he doesn’t come from a posh, successful and happy background. No. Almost everything from his boyhood and teenage years is misery and unhappiness. He describes the very negative impact of his parents splitting up when he was six (p.60). He tells us that he was miserable and lonely at prep school, and then really miserable at Eton, where he was one of the youngest in his year and felt bullied and subject to cruelty and humiliation.

Escaping poshness

How do you escape from this kind of stifling background? By being naughty. Loyd tells us that in one of the half-yearly drug sweeps through Eton the authorities found some hashish in his possession (p.65). He was sent down for a month during which he pleaded with his mother and estranged father (who was paying the bills) not to be sent back. His parents acceded to his wishes and sent him to a 6th form college in Guildford (p.65).

Here he managed to disappoint again by being determinedly unacademic and leaving with poor A-levels. Having hated the entire education system up to this point the last thing he wanted to do was go on to university so he bummed around a bit, as posh 18-year-olds confidently can, in his case working for a spell as a ‘jackaroo’ in the Australian outback, before travelling back through South-East Asia, where he had the standard adventures i.e. smoked dope in exotic settings and tried to get laid (p.65).

But the weight of family tradition began to bear down. His great-grandfather, grandfather and numerous great-uncles and cousins had all served in the military, so… He joined up. Being posh (solid family, Eton) he was readily accepted for officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

My own path was obvious: I wanted to go to war so I joined the army. There had never been any family pressure upon me to sign up. There never had to be. From my earliest recall I had wanted only to be a soldier. The legends of my own ancestors were motivation enough. (p.63)

Loyd joined the Light Division and deployed to Northern Ireland. He doesn’t say a lot about the four years he spent there, but does have a couple of vivid pages about his relatively brief time in Iraq. Basically, he was just about to leave the army at the expiration of his five year contract, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Wanting to see action, Loyd extended his contract for the duration, underwent quick desert training and then was shipped off to Kuwait, joining the 700,000 or so troops of the 35-country military coalition which was assembled in the desert and then swiftly expelled Saddam during Operation Desert Sabre in February 1991 (pages 131 to 133).

His experience was disappointing. He never saw any action, never fired a shot in anger. The Iraqi troops just surrendered, in their tens of thousands, without a hint of a fight. Saddam’s threat to unleash ‘the mother of all wars’ turned into ‘the mother of all surrenders’.

I had left my beloved Light Division and come a very long way for a war that did not happen, not to me anyway. The closest I got to killing anybody was a moment when I considered killing one of our own sergeants in a fit of rage at his ineptitude. (p.132)

Disillusioned, Loyd returned to London and quit the Army for good. But he didn’t know what to do next. He became depressed. He drank all day, barely bothering to open the curtains. He became suicidal (p.133). Eventually he went into therapy and found the discipline of turning up, once a week, looking reasonably presentable, at the therapist’s, was the start of recovery (p.134).

He signed up for a post-graduate course in photojournalism at the London College of Printing, located in the Elephant and Castle, and completed it in the summer of 1992 (p.135). It was during these months, in the spring of 1992, that the political situation in Yugoslavia began to unravel. Slowly the idea formed of heading off for this new war, using his experience as a soldier to understand the situation, hopefully using his recently acquired photography qualification as some kind of ‘in’ into journalism. For months he sent off his CV to newspapers and magazines but this led to exactly zero replies, so he decided, ‘fuck it’ (p.14) – to head off for the Balkans anyway, to see the war for himself and see what happened. His therapy had helped to some extent but also:

in many ways only fuelled an appetite for destruction. I wanted to throw myself into a war, hoping for either a metamorphosis or an exit. I wanted to reach a human extreme in order to cleanse myself of my sense of fear, and saw war as the ultimate frontier of human experience. (p.136)

Structure

Loyd’s narrative has been very carefully chopped up and rearranged to create maximum dramatic and psychological impact. If it had started the way I have, with the autobiography of his life up to the moment he decided to go to the Balkans, it would have been pretty boring. Prep school, Eton, screwing up his A-levels, Sandhurst – makes him sound like tens of thousands of nice but dim sons of the aristocracy who ended up in the Army for lack of any other career options and were packed off to run some remote province of the Empire. A time-honoured story.

Instead, the text opens with a preface of eight pages describing the scene and, more importantly, the very spooky atmosphere, inside the forest outside the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, a year after Serbian paramilitaries carried out the genocidal killing of more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys there in July 1995.

In other words, the reader is thrown right into the heart of darkness, and to the end of Loyd’s odyssey through the Balkan Wars, a moment of grim reflection which allows him to reminisce about the people he’s met, the horrors he’s seen, the things he’s learned about human nature and himself – and then we’re off into a sequence of places and dates which have been very cannily arranged so as to build up an immensely powerful, persuasive and addictive collage.

It’s these vivid impressions and experiences, first in Sarajevo and then at villages close to the front line of the three-way Bosnian war between Croats, Muslims and Serbs, which make up the bulk of the narrative.

Sarajevo, spring 1993

While he was planning his trip, Loyd rang the Serbian restaurant in Notting Hill asking if anyone could teach him Serbo-Croatian. A woman called Mima replied and gave him lessons. She also introduced him to her friends Omar and Isidora. They had fled to London from Sarajevo, leaving Isidora’s parents behind in the besieged city. Loyd offered to take them a parcel of food and letters. He hitched a ride with two friends who were driving to Moldova and dropped him in Budapest. Then he took trains and buses to Split on the Dalmatian coast. Here he flashed an official-looking letter from a well-placed friend (posh connections) claiming he was a photojournalist and so managed to blag a UN press pass, and then onto the next flight into Sarajevo. After finding a hotel room and acclimatising himself to the siege conditions (map of danger areas, which streets not to cross), he made his way to the flat of Isidora’s parents, delivered the parcel and letters, and was welcomed into their extended social circle. He was in.

He begins to make local friends – Momcilo, Endre – and get to understand the realities of modern militia war. The eerie way you never see enemy. The first thing you know there’s a deafening racket of the shellburst or ‘the fluttering zings, smacks and whistles’ of machine gun fire (p.23). The anecdote of two old ladies pulling a trolley of potatoes across a gap between buildings, who are shelled but, miraculously, survive. ‘Fuck your mother,’ seems to be the universal expletive.

His first encounter with what passes for authority in the chaos of war. The key point is how erratic and unpredictable ‘authority’ has become in a war zone. He’s getting on well with the soldiers hunkered down in the Bosnian parliament building when some fat guy in a pink t-shirt and slippers starts throwing his weight around and comes up and confronts Loyd. When Loyd tells him to ‘fuck off’, he finds himself being escorted by reluctant soldiers to the local police station.

For a start the route takes them via sniper alley, which they have to run across as bullets zing around then. After surviving this few seconds of madness, the soldiers and Loyd break out in hysterical laughter of relief, hand round fags and are all very pally. When they arrive at the police station the head cop turns out to have a daughter in Islington so they chat about London for a bit until he’s told he’s free to go. When he asks for some kind of document authenticating his release or which he can use against future fat men in pink t-shirts, the cop laughs out loud. Loyd still hasn’t grasped the logic of a war zone.

It is amazing how quickly you get accustomed to saying nothing when dealing with Bosnian authority. Very soon you realise that it is a waste of time trying to explain anything. (p.45)

Mafia groups had been quick to grasp the new realities of life in a war zone. As the Bosnian police chief tells him, ‘Some of today’s heroes were yesterday’s criminals’ (p.28). The black market, smuggling, illegal channels – all these are now good things which enable ordinary citizens and even the state, to carry on.

We meet Darko the 24-year-old sniper, smart, well educated and a slick assassin, member of the HOS, the extremist Croatian militia. Darko takes Loyd with him on a night-time excursion to a ridge overlooking Serb positions. Darko lets him look through the rifle’s night sight where sees human shapes moving and feels an overwhelming urge to pull the trigger – not to kill, exactly, but to complete the process, ‘to achieve a conclusion to the trigger-bullet-body equation’ (p.34).

From now on the narrative is full of descriptions of corpses in all kinds of postures and conditions. He sees civilians killed, shot, eviscerated by shrapnel. The recently killed. A mother wailing over the body of her beautiful daughter, shot dead only moments earlier. The sense of universal randomness and pointlessness.

Herzegovina, summer 1993 (p.38)

Feeling too much like a tourist, bereft of a really defined role (he was neither a soldier, nor a journalist, nor a photographer – what was he?) Loyd decides to leave Sarajevo. Word is coming in that the war in wider Bosnia is taking a new direction. Three months after he left London, he takes the UN flight out of Sarajevo, and another plane which lands him in the coastal city of Split which, after Sarajevo, seems ‘a lotus fruit to the senses’ (p.42).

He meets Eric, deserted from the French Foreign Legion’s parachute regiment and a mercenary (p.49). He learns about the HVO, the Bosnian Croat army. In 1991 the Bosnian Croats and Muslims fought side by side against the nationalist Serbians. But in 1992 this alliance began to fall apart and Croats and Muslims turned against each other, creating a three-way conflict. He sees a platoon of HVO back from a sortie, lounging in the sun, swigging plum brandy.

Their leering faces and swaggering shoulders were the first examples of the porcine brutishness I was to see so much of in the months ahead. (p.46)

Central Bosnia, summer 1993 (p.69)

In Tomislavgrad he meets a soldier who is unashamedly Ustashe i.e. invokes the name of the Second World War Croat fascist party backed by the Nazis. This soldier calmly tells Loyd that he cuts the ears off dead Muslims.

Loyd hitchhikes to a place called Prozor and then beyond, till it’s dark and he’s walking along a scary road and comes to an outhouse which contains HVO troops. They welcome him and it’s all fags and plum brandy till their commander turns up and insists on interrogating Loyd, cocking a pistol in his face, convinced he’s a spy. Rather bathetically, Loyd says, deep down, it wasn’t much different from the grilling he got at Eton when he was caught in possession of drugs (p.79).

In Stara Bila he rents a room in a house owned by Viktoria and Milan, which was to turn out to be his home for the next two years. The barbecues, the parties, his mates, including a pair called Boris and Wayne.

The Bosnian war, a brief introduction

In June 1991 the Croatian government declared independence from Yugoslavia. But the eastern parts of the country had large Serb minorities which promptly rose up to defend themselves from what they feared might be a revival of the wartime fascist Croatian rule. In particular, they feared their language and positions in society would be threatened. And so towns and villages all across eastern Croatia were rent by ethnic division. They were backed by the predominantly Serb Yugoslav national army and the Serb government in Belgrade.

In 1992 the Serbs in neighbouring Bosnia also rose up to defend their communities and then went on the offensive against what they saw as the threat from the Bosnian government. The Yugoslav National Army, predominantly Serb, surrounded the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, for a siege which turned out to last for nearly four years, from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996.

Inside Sarajevo many Croats and Muslims still believed in the liberal multi-ethnic state that Yugoslavia had once been and believed it was what they were fighting for. But outside the city, in the towns and villages of Bosnia, the fragile alliance between Croats and Muslims began to crumble. This was the cause of the Bosnian War – that Croats and Muslims, initially united in opposition to the Serbs, began to fall out among themselves.

Loyd paints the breakdown in relations between Croats and Bosnian Muslims as coming from the Croat side. War in Croatia against the Serb insurgents had hardened Croat hearts and led to a flourishing of take-no-prisoners Croatian nationalism. Loyd describes the process whereby paramilitary emissaries of this new, crude and violent nationalism were sent into Bosnia where they set about terrorising the Muslim population.

Time and again Loyd hears of villages where Croat and Muslim had lived alongside each other as friends and neighbours for centuries, but then the militias arrived – outsiders, merciless and cruel – and set about massacring the Muslims, and everyone in the community was forced to take sides. Whether you wanted to or not, you were forced back on your ethnic ‘identity’. It was like a plague that spread from valley to valley, from village to village.

Loyd meets Croatian nationalist fanatics who want to annex all of Bosnia as far as the border with Serbia, in order to create a Greater Croatia. To do that they have to either exterminate the Muslims or so terrorise them with exemplary massacres that they voluntarily flee the country.

Central Bosnia, autumn 1993 (p.137)

Brutal description of the rape of a young woman while her incapacitated father watched, in Vares, an ugly mining town north-west of Sarajevo. The Serb warrior who had the skull of an imam mounted on his jeep. Back to the Middle Ages, back to the Mongol hordes.

Swedes operating as UN soldiers try to force a confrontation with murderous HVO troops in Vares but are forced to back down. The UN prevents them shooting unless definitely fired upon, which means they have to stand by passively while atrocities are carried out under their noses.

He, Corinne and others go to Stupni Do to survey the scene of a massacre, the entire civilian population of the village having been executed, tortured, burned to death. Some very upsetting sights, the work of Kresimir Bozic and the Bobovac Brigade, themselves under the control of Ivaca Rajic. Loyd uses it as a case study of the complexity of the Bosnian War, the conflicting motivations of many on all sides, the brutality of the most brutal, and the complete inability of the UN to stop it.

Central Bosnia, winter 1993 (p.164)

Novi Travnik. The disgusting story of the three Muslim soldiers who are mined by the HVO and then forced to walk back towards their lines as human booby traps until they were close enough for the Croats to detonate them, leaving nothing but stumps of legs in boots. This introduces a chapter about the tides of war in the small area known as ‘the Vitez pocket’.

The Fish-Head Gang, lawless guardians of the long narrow ravine leading from Gornji Vakuf to Vitez (p.175). Why the name? They were based on the corner of the main road through the valley where it came close to a ruined fish farm in a lake. Loyd and Corinne survive an encounter with them, but other journalists weren’t so lucky.

Back in Sarajevo for a visit, Loyd is reunited with local friends only to find them all more impoverished, stressed and desperate. The story of his friend Momcilo who is desperate to be reunited with his wife and child in Croatia and so pays people smugglers to get him out, with predictably dire consequences.

In the spring Croat authority in the pocket collapses and the area disintegrates into firefights between rival warlords, little more than gangsters fighting for control of the black market. Darko, who had risen to become a crime boss, is victim of an assassination attempt, shot three times in the stomach, helicoptered out and disappears.

Weeks later Loyd needs a break and flies back to London. He is astonished to meet Darko at the airport (p.199). By the time he arrives back in Bosnia peace has been imposed on Croats and Muslims by outsiders, mainly America, via the Drayton Accords. The fighting stops (p.197).

But peace between Croats and Bosniaks didn’t mean the joint conflict against the Serbs was over, it was merely in abeyance. In the spring of 1994 the war against the Serbs stagnated. The Croats used the time to re-arm. He’s back in Bosnia, touring quiescent front lines when he gets a letter from his mother telling him his father’s dying. Comparison of what one personal death means amid so many slaughters.

Everything I had seen and experienced confirmed my views about the pointlessness of existence, the basic brutality of human life and the godlessness of the universe. (p.207)

An extended description of the garbled messages he receives in Bosnia, his hasty flight back to England, but too late, his father’s dead. His rage, his well of resentments, he attends the funeral but finds no peace. His unassuaged anger fuels his determination to return to the war, suck deep of its horrors, and blast them in his readers’ faces.

Western Bosnia, summer 1994 (p.214)

After all the bitter emotions stirred by his last communications with his dying his father, and his alienated, unwanted attendance at his father’s funeral, Loyd finds solace in the fact ‘that at least I had a war to go home to’ (p.214). War is his cure. War is his solution to his intractable personal demons.

He travels to Bihac, jumping off point for Velika Kladusa, capital of a self-styled statelet set up by Fikret Abdic, known as ‘Babo’. Loyd calls his followers ‘the autonomists’. Insight into how quickly and totally a society breaks up into warlord-led fragments. Against him is General Atid Dudakovic, known as Dudo, commander of the 5th Corp, who was to become the most renowned Bosnian government commander. Assisted by the Bosnian 502 brigade, known as the ‘Tigers’, led by Hamdu Abdic.

Loyd arrives in Bihac, with two colleagues, Robby and Bob, seeking an interview with Dudo which they eventually carry out. Then they wangle their way into Velika Kladusa, just a day or so before Dudo’s 5th Corp attack. In the attack Loyd and colleagues see a carful of civilians raked with machine gun fire and discover a three-year-old, Dina, who has somehow survived a bullet wound to the head. With considerable bravery, he and his colleagues drive the injured child and distraught mother through the fighting to a French UN camp on the outskirts of town.

Chechnya, new year 1995 (p.234)

The thirty pages describing his weeks in Chechnya reporting on the Russian invasion are a kind of interlude in the mostly Yugoslav setting of the book, and require such a long complicated prehistory, such a completely different setting with different rules, causes and consequences from Bosnia, that to summarise it would confuse this review. Suffice to say that the destructiveness and barbarism of the Russian army put what he saw in Bosnia in the shade.

Northern Bosnia, spring 1995 (p.278)

The absolutely disgusting story of the lone Serbian shell which landed in Tuzla old town square on 25 May 1995, leaving 71 people killed and 240 wounded. The experience of two freelance friends of Loyd’s, Wayne and Boris, who get spat on and kicked when they arrive at the square soon after the disaster to film the blood and guts and bone and brain splatted all over. Loyd attends the funeral and is awed by the dignity of the coffin bearers and relatives.

How Loyd learns through hints and tips that the Bosnian army in Sarajevo is finally going to attempt to break the 3-year-long siege, agonises about whether to report it to his newspaper but decides he needs to sit on it, to prevent the Serbs preparing – only to watch a puffed-up Canadian press officer spill the beans at a press conference. Didn’t matter. The Bosnian offensive quickly bogged down. Now as for the previous 3 years, because of the arms embargo enforced by the West, the Bosnians lacked the heavy heavy weaponry and ammunition available to the Serbs.

Zagreb, autumn 1995 (p.289)

Description of going cold turkey in the Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb, the dreams of corpses coming to life and talking, the sweats, the diarrhoea.

July 1995 the Srebrenica Massacre: more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were rounded up and murdered by units of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) under the command of Ratko Mladić, alongside the ‘Scorpions’, a paramilitary unit from Serbia. Loyd doesn’t see it, none of the press see it because the town was hermetically sealed by the Serb forces.

The international community’s patience finally snaps. NATO launches co-ordinated attacks against Serb infrastructure and supplies. Loyd checks out of the Esplanade and drives to Bihac where he hooks up with the 5th Corps of the Bosnian army, and with the 502 Tiger Brigade, led by Hamdu Abdic, ‘the Tiger’ who we met at the siege of Velika Kladusa.

Bosnians are sweeping back through Serb-held areas but Loyd dwells on the failed offensive at Sanski Most which he observed at first hand.

What does a man want?

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ (Samuel Johnson)

Loyd’s account contains blistering scenes. He is frequently disgusted, sometimes traumatised, has a whole, gripping, passage about being possessed by sudden panic fear in the midst of battle. When he flies back to London he finds he can’t connect with his old friends, his relationship with his girlfriend falls apart. He is caught between ‘irreconcilable worlds’ (p.44). He feels burned-out, jaded. He cannot convey what he’s seen, even to his closest friends.

What is really, really obvious is that this is what he wants. His ostensible aim is to ‘see the war for himself’ but it is blatantly obvious that his deeper aim is to achieve precisely this cynical, world-weary, war-torn position/feeling/character. This is how he wants to end up, jaded, cynical and burnt out.

Why war?

Why do men want to fight? Pacifists and progressives the world over ponder this question as if it is a deep mystery, but it isn’t deep at all. Back when he applied for Sandhurst Loyd wanted to tell the recruiting officer the simple truth that he just wants to go to a war, any war, anywhere. 1) He wants to see what it is like. And once he joined up he discovered that most of his fellow officers felt the same. As one of them tells him, ‘We want to know what killing is like.’ (p.67)

So there’s one positive motive, to see and find out what war and killing are like. There’s a second incentive: 2) to get your kicks, because it looks like a laugh. For the lolz.

I had come to Bosnia partially as an adventure. But after a while I got into the infinite death trip. I was not unhappy. Quite the opposite. I was delighted with most of what the war had offered me: chicks, kicks and chaos; teenage punk dreams turned real and wreathed in gunsmoke. It was an environment to which I had adapted better than most, and I could really get off on it. I could leer and posture as much as anyone else, roll my shoulders and swagger through stories of megadeath, murder and mayhem… (p.207)

In other passages he describes how incredibly cool it is to be driving with buddies wearing leather jackets and aviator shades yelling your head off as mortar shells explode all around and the bullets zing and chatter. Early on he visits an underground nightclub in Sarajevo where all the men are festooned with guns and ammo and the chicks are hot and sexy. Teen punk fantasies indeed. Later he makes it through heavy incoming fire to the wrecked Hotel Ero in Mostar:

The scene was chaotic. The floor was a skidpan of congealing blood, broken glass and spent bullet casings, while through a haze of smoke and dust HVO troops fired Kalashnikovs in random bursts from the edge of windows on the other side of the foyer to unseen targets beyond. Every few seconds a round would smack back through the windows into one of the walls around us, sending everybody ducking in unison. It was obviously the place to be. (p.51)

In another passage he speculates that this is what unites all the outsiders who, these days, flock to war zones.

Men and women who venture to someone else’s war through choice do so in a variety of guises. UN general, BBC correspondent, aid worker, mercenary: in the final analysis they all want the same thing, a hit off the action, a walk on the dark side. It’s just a question of how slick a cover you give yourself, and how far you want to go. (p.54)

Arguably, he is here expanding his own personal motivation out to fit quite a wide range of people (war correspondents). But then again, he’s been there and he’s met these types. Is this a fair summary?

Anyway, matching the positive incentives to go to war, there’s a pair of distinct and negative motivations as well. 1) The first, overarching one is to escape from normal civilian life. Repeatedly, Loyd believes he is expressing the feelings of all bored, frustrated young men who can’t find a place in the dull routines of civilian life.

… If you are a young man of combat age frustrated by the tedium and meaninglessness of life in twentieth-century Europe, you may understand them [his fellow officers at Sandhurst]. (p.67)

So on the one hand, the quest for the extreme edge of human experience; on the other, the obsessive need to escape the humdrum boredom of bourgeois existence.

The oppressive stagnation of peacetime, growing older, of domestic tragedy and trivial routine. Could I accept what to me seemed the drudgery of everyday existence, the life we endure without so much as a glimpse of an angel’s wing. Fuck that. Sometimes I pray for another war just to save me (p.186)

He despises and wants to escape from:

the complacency of Western societies whose children, like me, are corrupted by meaningless choice, material wealth and spiritual emptiness. (p.261)

This sounds fine but, on reflection, is surely a very immature attitude. Loyd’s descriptions of the scenes he witnessed in Bosnia are almost all handled brilliantly and written in a vivid, sometimes florid style. But when he comes to consider his motivation and psychology, he risks slumping into cliché. For example, this talk about ‘spiritual emptiness’ sounds like some Anglican bishop or the padre at Eton; it’s the kind of pompous waffle a certain kind of pundit has been spouting for half a century or more about the ‘moral decline of the West’.

Also, seeing the world as a place of ‘meaningless choice, material wealth and spiritual emptiness’ hugely signposts his own privilege. It is (as he acknowledges) the view of a comfortably off, middle-class person, as he is well aware:

We were all consumerist children of the Sixties with an appetite for quick kicks without complications. (p.123)

Back in the real world, there are over 2,800 food banks in the UK and about 2.2 million people use them. In 2021/22 over 1.89 million schoolchildren were eligible for free school meals in England. According to the Rowntree Foundation, in 2020/21 around one in five of of the UK population, some 13.4 million people, were living in poverty.

Loyd’s is the voice of a particular type of posh waster. He may have gone through a few periods without a job or much money, but his posh family, his posh friends and his posh contacts, meant he was never in much danger of going hungry. (His friends being, as he writes with typical self-dramatisation:

a talented, incestuous band of West London hedonists with leanings towards self-destruction. (p.120))

He got on well with his colleagues at Sandhurst because they were all Ruperts like him (my understanding is that ‘Rupert’ is working class squaddie slang for the officer class in the British Army, populated as it apparently is by chinless wonders named Rupert and Jeremy and Sebastian.)

He got the gig of war correspondent with The Times, not because of any qualifications or experience (which he conspicuously didn’t have), but because Eton and Sandhurst meant that he understood the tone of voice, the attitude and the good manners required for the job. He fit right in. ‘Good to have you aboard, old chap.’

If the first negative motivation is to escape the ennui of being a posh waster, the second negative motive is 2) to escape from his family.

Loyd’s family romance

Early on we learned that his parents divorced when he was just 6, he was sent to boarding school etc. It’s only a lot later, two-thirds of the way through the 321-page text, that we are given a second, far deeper and more disturbing portrait of his family. His father moved some distance away and lived on a farm with his new wife and her son. We hear in some detail how awful young Anthony’s visits to his father were, how everything was regimented and controlled, of his ‘abusive and intimidating behaviour’ (p.190). So awful that on one occasion young Anthony threw himself down the stairs of his mother’s house in Berkshire in a bid to injure himself so he wouldn’t have to go.

Most of the time I hated him. He was a selfish and damaging bastard. (p.213)

As he became a teenager he rebelled against the visits and his conversations with his cold father became more and more cruel and damaging. But the situation held two secrets which his vindictive stepmother enjoyed skewering him with. One was that his beloved younger sister might not have been his father’s child at all; that his mother had an adulterous affair way before his parents split up. And a lot later, when his father was seriously ill and dying, he’s told that he has an older sister he’s never met; that his mother had by a relationship before her father, and who she was forced to give up for adoption.

There’s an extended passage describing his father’s illness and death (pages 206 to 213). He was in Bosnia when he learned of this, and there’s an agonising tap dance of whether he should return immediately, there are exchanges of letters, but his father continues in the same style, insisting that Anthony ask for forgiveness before he grants him a visit. Messages back and forth and the spiteful interferences of his stepmother, what a snakepit of poisonous emotions. And then came the news that his father had died. And his reaction?

I had wondered whether his death would end the anger inside me, so much of which was responsible for motivating me in war. But I had nothing to fear there. The embers of resentment glowed with a new intensity…I went back to war wanting to suck deeply on the pain out there and blow it back in the faces of people like my father: the complacent, the smug, the sardonic. (p.213)

Doesn’t need much interpretation or analysis. Loyd lays out his motives as clinically as a post mortem dissection.

Not rocket science, is it? Probably most men do not want to fight in a war, but some do, and the ones that do, really really want to – and, in generation after generation, they are enough to bring down death and destruction on all around them. Middle-aged men in power want more power and glory (for example, Vladimir Putin) and enough young men want to see and experience war for themselves, to make it happen – and this explains why wars will never end.

Peace? It was a hideous thought. (p.198)

So, that’s about 4 reasons, two positive, two negative, why Loyd himself was motivated to go and suck on the tit of war. That’s what it means to be a highly educated Englishman, raised in the bosom of a liberal democracy, pampered and bored and seeking out the most extreme environment imaginable.

But the book also mentions the motivations of the actual warriors for going to war, and the chief reason is that some people do very well out of war. Some people make a terrific living. It suits some men down to the ground. Take Darko the sniper. He has found his vocation:

Darko exuded a hypnotic charisma common among those who have found their vocation in killing…Darko was one of the many in Bosnia who had tapped into their own darkness and found there bountiful power. (pages 169 to 170)

War has helped Darko find his vocation, his purpose in life. Some men are born to kill, most never get to express this side of themselves, but in war, many, many of them can. Thus:

The war with the Muslims had given him power, freedom and prestige. While it continued he had been a hero… (p.199)

And the book is sprinkled with descriptions of the various other gangsters, crooks and petty criminals who seized the opportunity to raise themselves to positions of power, power over life and death, for example, the notorious Arkan, a one-time petty criminal who war empowered to become head of the Serb paramilitary force called the Serb Volunteer Guard and then an influential politician.

And then there are the mercenaries, people who’ve travelled from all over the world to take part in the fighting. He meets quite a few of these and Peter the Dutchman speaks for all of them when he says:

‘We don’t fight for the money and we’re not in it for the killing. It’s about camaraderie and, sure, it’s about excitement’. (p.54)

Clichés of the genre

Alongside these extensive meditations on his own motivations and other people’s, for going to war, there are passages describing classic wartime experiences and the emotions they trigger. These are covered so systematically that I wondered whether he had a bucket list of must-have war experiences and then ticked them off, one by one, in the course of the narrative. They include:

  • the first time you see a dead body, fascinated, repulsed – then, the more you see, the more numb you become – until eventually the sight of corpses loses all emotional impact and it becomes a subject of purely intellectual interest, a collector and connoisseur’s interest
  • the first time you’re under fire you don’t even realise it – the next few times you wet yourself or freeze – eventually you learn to control your panic
  • the sensation of powerlessness when you see the wounded and dying
  • the first time you look through a sniper rifle sight at an enemy and feel a tremendous urge to pull the trigger
  • trying to reason with the fighters, discuss the issues, enquire into their motivation – but it is a chilling discovery to learn that some people just enjoy killing – that’s all there is to it
  • being pulled over by local police / militia, hauled off to jail, interviewed by suspicious cops, scary the first time it happens and then settles down to become part of the black pantomime of a disintegrated society

Eventually he becomes so detached from his own feelings that he can’t begin to communicate with his girl at home and his family. But, as I said above, all of this has a studied, practiced feel to it. It isn’t happening to a naive ingenu, a wide-eyed innocent out of All Quiet on the Western Front; it’s happening to an educated young man who’s read his Graham Greene and his Michael Herr (Herr is namechecked on page 66), and wants it. He actively wants to achieve this state of jaded numbness.

When the likes of Martin Bell and John Nichol queue up to load the book with praise with blurbs on the cover, it is partly because it is a most excellent book and contains searing descriptions and penetrating insights. But it’s also because it’s all so recognisable. The tough guy who’s also really sensitive and carries deep hurt (his miserable childhood) inside is as clichéd a literary figure as the hooker with a heart of gold.

It’s as if the actual chaos and the bestial atrocities Loyd witnessed can only be contained within a straitjacket of clichés. As if, if one part of your life is completely deranged, all the other parts must be sentimental stereotypes. In many ways the book is an interesting reflection on the nature of writing itself, or of this kind of writing.

Tall, beautiful, unobtainable women

Take the way that all the women he knows or meets are stunningly beautiful:

  • After Sarajevo, Split seemed like a lotus fruit to the senses, a blast of waterfront restaurants, light, space, wine and beautiful, unobtainable Dalmatian women. (p.42)
  • I was with Corinne at the time. An American a few years older than me, she combined feminine compassion with a high tolerance for violence and a fine temper. (p.95)
  • Alex’s beautiful honey-blonde wife, Lela, tempered his excesses with an often intuitive insight and gentleness. (p.121)
  • Stella was one of the most striking women in West London, an actress with a gymnast’s body. (p.121)
  • I spotted a small buzz of activity in the square…two Europeans heading towards the hotel….The first was a girl of exceptional beauty…She must have been close to six foot, moving fast with the swivel-hipped arm-swinging assurance of the very beautiful. (p.129)
  • Sandra paid us a visit, stepping shyly into the flat on the finest pair of legs in central Sarajevo. (p.180)
  • We enjoyed half a party with the attractive Red Cross girls before a Bosnian soldier walked in and stole the sound system at gunpoint… (p.220)
  • A Red Cross girl who had heard of the incident with the wounded children approached me…She looked good, smelled good; I had just come out of the war and could have done with a fuck. (p.232)
  • I looked around. A very tall, very beautiful girl stood at the reception desk (p.295)

This roll-call of tall, attractive women comes direct from the conventions of the airport novel, from paperback thriller territory, more worthy of Frederick Forsyth than the alert perception Loyd shows whenever he describes the actual fighting or his encounters with swaggering militias or weeping civilians. As I mentioned above, it’s as if the fresh and insightful parts of the text need the foil of cliché and stereotype to set them off.

The United Nations

It’s worth recording the view of someone who’s seen the UN in action on the ground. Suffice to say  that Loyd expresses repeated contempt for the cowardice and inaction of the UN at all levels, failures which, in his view, only prolonged the war:

  • the impotent moral cowardice of an organisation that only perpetuated the war with its hamfisted ineptitude and indecision [shaming] officers of every nationality on whom the UN’s blue beret was forced. (p.92)
  • The blame lay with the organisation that put them [peacekeeping troops] in that situation – the UN. (p.100)
  • [The UN] could not decide if the troops it sent to Bosnia were part of a trucking company or a fighting force, and was prepared to go to almost any length to preserving inaction at the cost of lives. (p.205)

Mind you, the UN are merely reflecting the criminal inaction of the Western powers in general.

What good did reporting in Bosnia ever do anyway? By that stage of the war it was obvious that, despite our initial optimistic presumptions to the contrary, West European powers were prepared to tolerate the mass slaughter and purging of Muslims regardless of the reporting. (p.228)

By contrast, Loyd celebrates and praises the values of the British Army who he sees doing the best job possible of safekeeping unarmed villagers (p.195). Some people might say he is biased, but obviously he’s aware of this and consciously reflects on his own attitude.

Writing as therapy

Maybe Loyd’s therapist suggested he write this powerful and emotional autobiography as therapy. It would make sense of the extended passages of autobiography, which go into unnecessarily bitter detail about the terrible relationship he had with his father.

Although the majority of the content and the eye-catching descriptions are all of war, and that’s how the book is packaged and marketed, the personal, family bleugh is, in one way, the core of the narrative. It explains Loyd’s near death wish, his need to escape the unbearable tedium of the workaday world of peacetime Britain. He has to force himself to travel to wherever there’s news of atrocities and horrors, because he is on an unending mission to blot out his own psychological pain with even greater, maximal, real-world horrors.

He thinks about suicide a lot, has ‘narcissistic death dreams’ (p.194) but he keeps to this side of them by always having somewhere even worse to travel to, and a ready supply of colleagues to accompany him in the endless quest to spend the days recording atrocities and the nights getting off his face. But try as he might, he can never escape himself. Hence his deep sense of the endless recurrence of the ‘goldfish bowl war’ he finds himself in (p.194).

And writing? Not only is writing a form of therapy, an exorcism, meant to get it all ‘out of your system’. It’s also a reliving and a memento and a tribute. This is one of the deep pleasures of the book, that so much is going on in it, at so many levels.

Credit

My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd was published by Doubleday in 1999. References are to the 2000 Anchor paperback.


War reporting book and exhibition reviews

Unconditional Surrender by Evelyn Waugh (1961)

‘Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians–not very many perhaps–who felt this. Were there none in England?’
‘God forgive me,’ said Guy. ‘I was one of them.’
(Mme. Kanyi talking to Guy Crouchback in Unconditional Surrender, page 232)

The second novel in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy followed on from the first with hardly a break, commencing on the afternoon of the same day the previous one ended. Here things are very different. At the end of the previous book, the ‘hero’ of the trilogy, Guy Crouchback, had arrived back in England eight weeks after hearing of the German invasion of Russia, on 22 June 1941, so roughly 22 August 1941. Unconditional Surrender only really gets going in August 1943, two years later i.e. there is a big gap, the central years of the war.

The book is divided into five sections or parts:

  1. PROLOGUE. Locust Years
  2. BOOK ONE. State Sword
  3. BOOK TWO. Fin de Ligne
  4. BOOK THREE. The Death Wish
  5. EPILOGUE. Festival of Britain

1. Prologue: Locust Years

This brief introduction reviews Guy’s recaps the previous 2 years, describing Guy’s lack of direction when he got back from Crete in 1941, touching base with his father at his seaside hotel. He ends up helping to assemble and train a new generation of officers and men for the Royal Corps of Halberdiers. But in August 1943 he is told he is too old to accompany them abroad. More precisely, the new CO was his superior in Freetown back in 1940 and remembers the unfortunate incident of Guy giving a very sick colleague, Apthorpe, a bottle of whiskey with which he proceeded to drink himself to death. Further clarifying the timelines, Guy takes some leave and is at Matchet with his father when Italy surrenders on September 8 1943. Jumbo Trotter visits the barracks later the same month and fins Guy miserable so tells him to move in with him in London, while they find a new role for him. At his London club, Bellamy’s, he bumps into Tommy Blackhouse, a commanding officer in the commandos, about to leave for Italy, but Guy burned his bridges when he turned down an offer to join them two years earlier, preferring to return to the Halberdiers. He’s really screwed up his choices. But it is Tommy who suggests he might find a post in HOO HQ.

2. Book One: State Sword

HOO HQ Brompton

Anyway, as the narrative proper opens Guy is rising 40. In fact early on he has his 40th birthday, 29 October 1943, the day after Waugh’s own birthday.

Guy has come to rest in one of the many departments belonging to Hazardous Offensive Operations Headquarters (HOO HQ) which has grown and spread since we first met it in 1940. Now it occupies multiple buildings in central and west London. Guy finds himself with a cramped office:

in the Venetian-Gothic brick edifice of the Royal Victorian Institute, a museum nobly planned but little frequented in the parish of Brompton.

A cramped space he shares, surreally, with ‘a plaster reconstruction of a megalosaurus’. His job appears to be to receive memos and reports from other departments, sign or stamp or comment on them, before shuffling them along to other departments. Guy goes for a stroll round the building, which is a peg to introduce several other minor characters and for Waugh to describe the way a number of them are out and out communists. The alliance with Soviet Russia has allowed this political view to both spread and be more openly espoused and discussed, and not just among the ‘working classes’. He imagines one particular lofty bureaucrat, Sir Ralph Brompton, the diplomatic adviser to HOO HQ who promotes alliances and support for communist forces everywhere, picturing Guy being put up against a wall and shot, in the best Soviet manner (p.29)

His stroll round the premises leads up to a conversation with Mr. Oates, who has recently installed an Electronic Personnel Selector, an early example of a computer and, as in a stage comedy or sitcom, he demonstrates its purpose in finding the right personnel for new jobs by discovering that there is a vacancy for a man with experience of Italy and some experience of the commandos – for Guy, in fact (p.31).

The sword of Stalingrad

Waugh novels are always multi-stranded or at least contain a number of characters and storylines. The central symbol of this book is the Sword of Stalingrad, a huge sword commissioned by the King himself and to be sent to Stalingrad in Russia as a symbol of solidarity with our Russian allies and testament to their fortitude in the brutal 6-month long siege. Silver, gold, rock-crystal and enamel had gone to its embellishment and throughout the novel it is placed on a fake altar in Westminster Cathedral where long queues of proles queue for a sight of it.

This sword, in Guy’s view a spurious product of press relations and alliance with an immoral beast is contrasted with the noble and pure sword of Sir Roger of Waybroke, an Englishman who travelled on crusade but never made it to the Holy Land, was shipwrecked on the Italian coast, fought and fell for the local count who buried him in the local church of the little island, Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, where Guy spent the 1930s. Over the years Guy developed a religious/superstitious attachment to the knight and attributed to him the finest feelings of nobility and chivalry. At the start of the first novel in the trilogy,  Men at Arms, before he leaves Santa Dulcina delle Rocce Guy touches the stone effigy of the knight and his sword, asking Sir Roger to pray for him and his embattled kingdom (i.e. Britain).

So the symbolism of the two swords, one ancient, venerable and noble, the other a modern, factitious and flashily popular fake, run through the text, symbolising the two sets of values, the two worldviews, the novel and Guy finds himself betwebelen, the dying old world and the new meritocratic one struggling to be born.

Ludovic

We are reintroduced to Ludovic, slippery, mysterious figure from book 2, who saved Guy when the two drifted across the Mediterranean in an open boat after the disastrous fall of Crete. We learn that he appears to have been picked up by the Sir Ralph Brompton we met a few pages earlier, way back in the 1930s, when he was a tall handsome junior officer in the Halberdiers. It is not stated but strongly implied that this was a homosexual affair, with the richer older man extracting Ludovic from his regiment and taking him abroad for five years to be his valet or secretary, depending on the situation, grooming and educating the lower class but handsome boy.

A decade has passed and Ludovic is a more imposing figure. He was given the Military Medical for conspicuous bravery for rescuing Guy and promoted. For a while the army couldn’t find a role for him but he was eventually put in charge of a training base in the country which teaches army and partisan groups to parachute, a job which gave him plenty of time to write and hone his literary skills. Despite all this, when in London, he still looks up old Sir Ralph for tea.

Everard Spruce

Sir Ralph is, of course, well connected, and tells Ludovic he has passed on the latter’s philosophical musings (which we saw Ludovic sketching out in the previous novel) on to the noted literary editor, Everard Spruce, editor of the fictional arts magazine Survival. This is a pretty obvious reference to the real-life noted editor Cyril Connolly and his arts magazine Horizon. Everard liked his Pensées and would like to meet him, though he thinks the title should be changed to something more modishly technical, like ‘In Transit’ (the sub-title, as it happens, of the second and final book of poems by Welsh war poet Alun Lewis).

(Waugh had already satirised Connolly and Horizon as Ambrose Silk and his magazine Ivory Tower in  the 1942 novel, Put Out More Flags. Connolly was to devote the entire February 1948 issue of Horizon to Waugh’s novel, The Loved One, so he had a keen understanding of Waugh’s importance. It is interesting that Waugh describes Spruce/Connolly as ‘a man who cherished no ambitions for the future, believing, despite the title of his monthly review, that the human race was destined to dissolve in chaos’, interesting if true of Connolly. p.39. It may be also worth noting that, despite finding himself satirised in Waugh’s novels, Connolly still described the trilogy as ‘Unquestionably the finest novel to come out of the war’, top quote on the cover of all three Penguin editions.)

Ludovic walks from Sir Ralph’s rooms in Victoria to Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where Spruce lives and works, tended on by four young bohemian secretaries, just in time for a posh party. He notices the flimsy blackout curtain, the manuscripts and mess everywhere, the posh guests. He notes and observes. What makes Ludovic so compelling is the way he is the coldest of cold fish, cold and aloof.

The Kilbannocks

We met Ian and Kerstie Kilbannock in the previous book, with their house in Eaton Terrace. Kerstie is now a cipher clerk, Ian has steadily worked his way up the pole of military press and PR. They have struggled but been sensible and make do.

Virginia Troy comes round, Guy’s ex-wife, who deserted him for Tommy Blackhouse, went on to have a string of affairs, married an American named Troy, has lived separated from him for ages. Now Troy reveals he’s had private detectives trailing her and is divorcing her on the grounds of infidelity. She will be left without a cent. For the first time in her life she’s panicking, She’s come round with all her possessions to ask Kerstie to help her go through them and decide what to pawn.

For the last few years she has been forced to support Trimmer, the ‘hero’ of a farcically incompetent ‘raid’ on the French mainland, as he tours the factories of England to boost morale, but is hopelessly in love with her. It’s Ian, as her employer at HOO HQ, who obliged her to ‘support’ Trimmer and the implication seems to be, obliged her to ‘keep him happy’ i.e. sleep with him (Trimmer).

The Loot

Waugh’s anti-Americanism came out so fiercely in the caricature of three slobbish American journalists at the end of Officers and Gentlemen. It recurs here:

London was full of American soldiers, tall, slouching, friendly, woefully homesick young men who seemed always to be in search of somewhere to sit down. In the summer they had filled the parks and sat on the pavements round the once august mansions which had been assigned to them. For their comfort there swarmed out of the slums and across the bridges multitudes of drab, ill-favoured adolescent girls and their aunts and mothers, never before seen in the squares of Mayfair and Belgravia. These they passionately and publicly embraced, in the blackout and at high noon, and rewarded with chewing-gum, razor-blades and other rare trade-goods from their PX stores.

‘Ill-favoured’ lol, that’s a nice phrase. And again when de Souza describes the experience of fighting in Italy:

‘And then in Italy there were Americans all over the place clamouring for doughnuts and Coca-Cola and ice cream.’ (p.95)

Anyway, towering above the general swarm of Yanks is a central and recurring figure, Lieutenant Padfield. The ‘Loot’ is a phenomenon, supernaturally present at every party, luncheon and dinner, knowing everyone in London, a finger in every pie. Incongruously, he goes to Everard Spruce’s party, turns up at Guy’s father’s funeral, and turns out to have been gathering evidence against Virginia for Mr Troy’s law firm.

Guy meets Ludovic

It is Guy’s fortieth birthday. He sallies forth to Bellamy’s where he meets Ian, just kicked out of his house for the evening by Kerstie who wants a girlie tete-a-tete with Virginia. Together with the Loot, Guy and Ian take a cab to Chelsea to Spruce’s party. Spruce had just gotten round to finding time to talk to Ludovic who he thinks is a very important New Writer. There is a droll bit of dialogue where Spruce thinks the lead images in Ludovic’s book of pensées (French for ‘thoughts’) are highly symbolic and/or derived from psychological sources, namely the theme of the drowned man and of the cave, while the reader of the trilogies knows that, in the last days of the ill-fated Crete campaign Ludovic holed up with other AWOL soldiers in safe caves, and then, in the local fishing boat which they got working in order to escape the advancing Germans, more than likely threw the 2 or 3 other sailors overboard in order to preserve himself and Guy. Spruce thinks these are deep symbolic images; whereas we know they are blunt facts.

‘And besides these there seemed to me two poetic themes which occur again and again. There is the Drowned Sailor motif–an echo of the Waste Land perhaps? Had you Eliot consciously in mind?’
‘Not Eliot,’ said Ludovic. ‘I don’t think he was called Eliot.’
‘Very interesting. And then there was the Cave image. You must have read a lot of Freudian psychology?’
‘Not a lot. There was nothing psychological about the cave.’

When Guy appears at Spruce’s party, Ludovic is almost paralysed with horror. The implication is that Ludovic did bump off the other men in the boat and is convinced Guy knows this and has tracked him down to confront him about it. Of course, Guy knows nothing and so is as puzzled as Spruce when Ludovic simply gets up and walks out of the party.

3. Book Two: Fin de Ligne

Virginia is pregnant

Virginia goes to a doctor who confirms she is pregnant. Must be by Trimmer. Yikes.

Guy is selected for parachute training

Guy goes for an interview about the job spat out by Mr Oates’s Electronic Personnel Selector. Something about parachuting into north Italy. He’ll need to go and do parachute training. Since the narrator has told us that Ludovic now manages a parachute training centre…

Guy’s father’s funeral

When Guy returns to the Transit Camp he finds a telegram from his sister telling him his father has died peacefully in his sleep. So he catches a train to Matchet with Box-Bender to attend the funeral whose Catholic elaborations are described in great detail. The county lord-lieutenant, a representative of the cardinal etc are in attendance and so, incongruously, is the Loot, who turns up everywhere. Angela and Guy are both astonished at the number of thank you letters their father has received; seems he quietly performed countless acts of charity, as well as giving a lot of his income to the needy.

Quantitative judgments don’t apply

The last time they’d met, Guy and his father had a little disagreement about the policy of the Popes concerning compromising with the values of the modern world. Guy argued that the popes should have stood aloof from all politics since Italian unification (1871). A few days later his father writes him a kindly letter explaining that, in his opinion, this is not how Catholicism works. It works in the world and through the world. It cannot disengage and hold itself in an ivory castle. Who knows how many souls came to the Church and so were saved because of successive Popes’ interventions:

Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of “face.”

This is a very important quote. Guy will repeat it to himself over and again as the novel progresses, regarding Virginia and in Yugoslavia.

The first abortionist

Kerstie prises the address of an illegal abortionist out of her very reluctant doctor, but when Virginia takes a taxi to the address it is bombed out. When she pops into nearby Claridge’s she finds the Loot, who tells her about attending Mr Crouchback’s funeral, and also the surprising news that he was quite well off. Planting a seed…

The voodoo abortionist

When Virginia tries a Black doctor who Kerstie’s cleaner recommends as an abortionist, there is broad farce when Virginia discovers he has been hired by HOO HQ to perform voodoo ceremonies in order to give the Nazi leaders bad dreams! He asks her whether she has brought the scorpions he’s requested as part of his ceremonies. No, replies Virginia. No, I haven’t brought scorpions.

The witch doctor sits alongside Dr Glendening-Rees, the forager sent to teach the commando how to eat seaweed and heather in Officers and Gentlemen, in Waugh’s gallery of military eccentrics.

Ludovic and the parachute training centre

It is November 1943 (p.117). Ludovic lives a quiet civilised life at his parachute training base in Essex (officially known as ‘Number 4 Special Training Centre’). Until he receives notification that none other than Guy Crouchback is among the next batch of trainees. He is horrified, convinced it is fate.

In the bus en route to the training centre, Guy bumps into an old hand from the Halberdiers, de Souza who becomes very confidential, saying a number of the 12 ‘candidates’ for the course probably know Sir Ralph Brompton. It’s becoming pretty obvious Brompton is more than a communist sympathiser, but maybe a Soviet spy.

Sustained and very evocative description of parachute training. Also a sustained running joke about Ludovic’s fantastically chilling effect on all around him. In fact, upon learning that Guy is coming for training he orders his staff to remove his name from all official documents, noticeboards, not to refer to him by name and to have his meals sent up to his room. De Souza notices this and makes a very funny running joke about their commanding officer having been overthrown in a coup and now being held hostage in his own room.

When it comes turn to do his first parachute jump Guy twists the same knee he injured all those years ago in the Halberdier barracks and is sent off to hospital whereupon Ludovic deigns to come down from his rooms and dine with the other 11 trainees, casting a wonderfully ghoulish coldness over the assembly. De Souza nicknames him Major Dracula. His number two seriously considers the possibility that his commanding officer has gone mad (mental illness and madness being, as we have so often observed, a recurrent theme in Waugh’s work). As de Souza puts it:

‘In my experience the more responsible posts in the army are largely filled by certifiable lunatics. They don’t cause any more trouble than the sane ones.’ (p.109)

Ludovic, like Apthorpe in the first book, only in a very different way, is a comic creation of genius. He consolidates his reputation for weirdness by insisting on buying a Pekinese dog. He clinches his second in command’s view that he’s gone mad when he exits the dinner singing the music hall song:

Jumbo rescues Guy who moves in with Uncle Peregrine

Guy hates it in the RAF hospital where the officers are rude and lackadaisical and which is bombarded all day long with the throbbing and wailing of jazz music from the wireless. He gets de Souza to pass on a message to Jumbo Trotter who promptly comes down to rescue him and take him back to his digs. However, Guy becomes depressed, so depressed that he takes up the offer of his uncle, his father’s brother, the notorious bore Peregrine Crouchback, to move in with him in his house in Bourne Mansions, Carlisle Place. It is the time of the Tehran Conference 28 November to 1 December 1943.

Virginia pops in on Guy. She takes to popping in every day, bringing cards and gin. She inveigles dear old Uncle Peregrine into taking her out for dinner and explains that she is thinking of becoming a Catholic so she can return to being married to Guy. She is quite candid about being skint, needing money and being tired of gallivanting around. Peregrine is a bit put out because, in his ancient innocence, he’d been rather thinking she’d been popping in to see him.

Then one day she tells him the truth. Asks if he loves her. Very unusually for Waugh, there is a reference to sex, when she runs her hand up his leg under his bedclothes (Guy is still restricted to bed because of his knee) and gets no response. In fact Guy instinctively shies away from her. No attraction at all. It is then she makes the Great Revelation of the novel and tells him she is pregnant, with Trimmer’s child.

To the astonishment of everyone in the know, namely Ian and Kerstie Kilbannock, Guy agrees on the spot to take her back, to get remarried in a civil ceremony (they were never parted, according to this theology). So Virginia and Ian, returning from Christmas 1943 discover Virginia has moved out of their house (where shes’ been staying, much to Ian’s mounting irritation) and moved straight into Uncle Peregine’s house, room next to Guy’s.

Kerstie goes straight round, Virginia is out, and she tells him point blank about Virginia’s baby by Trimmer and is flabbergasted that Guy knows. He tries to explain. For over a decade he was lived alone, depressed, morose, occasionally wishing there was one good deed he could do in the world, one good deed which was genuinely selfless, entirely about helping someone else. By helping Virginia in her time of need, and by becoming father to the child, he helps a vulnerable woman and a baby who would be fatherless.

Kerstie says wartorn Europe is full of helpless women and orphans. But Guy says he can’t help all of them. But he could help Virginia. He repeats the words of his father:

Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of “face.”

Remarrying Virginia and fathering the child are good deeds; loss of face before the whole world is secondary.

4. Book Three: The Death Wish

It is late February 1944 and Guy is flown in a Dakota plane via stopovers in Gibraltar and North Africa to Bari in Italy. Reports for duty to the Headquarters of the British Mission to the Anti-fascist Forces of National Liberation (Adriatic). He’s been dispatched here because a) Ludovic lied about his success in parachute training in order to get ride of him (as we saw, Guy failed to complete the course due to a knee injury); and b) because in the bowels of HOO HQ Sir Ralph and colleagues think Guy will make a good clean cover for what they’re really up to i.e. aiding the communist partisans.

Having signed in and met the Brigadier and the keen information officer Joe Cattermole, he is filled in about the Yugoslavs or ‘Jugs’ as the Brits call them. Keen to take all the help they can from the British, but their true leaders are the Russians, pan-Slavism. The partisans offer a permanent irritation to the Germans, who periodically carry out sweeps into the mountains. But the Germans’ central aim is to keep communications with Greece open. Earlier in the war they were going to use this as a jumping off point for the Middle East, for Palestine or Egypt. Now, with the tide strongly against them, they need Yugoslavia open so when the time is right they can withdraw their Greek army out and up into mainland Europe.

Guy us kept hanging round. He socialises with the Brigadier who has a WAAF mistress, he lunches and dines out, though the food is as thin and grim as back in England. He meets the bloody Loot who, improbably enough, is being paid to recruit a full orchestra and revive Italian opera, with the aim of winning over Italian hearts and minds. It’s proving difficult to find any singers.

In March 1943 Guy is informed he is to be parachuted into Croatia. He visits a church to make a last confession. He surprises us by confessing that he wants to die. It’s important to catch all the nuances of this surprising declaration to so I quote at length:

Guy had no preparations to make for this journey except to prepare himself. He walked to the old town, where he found a dilapidated romanesque church where a priest was hearing confessions. Guy waited, took his turn and at length said: “Father, I wish to die.’
‘Yes. How many times?’
‘Almost all the time.’
The obscure figure behind the grill leant nearer. ‘What was it you wished to do?’
‘To die.’
‘Yes. You have attempted suicide?’
‘No.’
‘Of what, then, are you accusing yourself? To wish to die is quite usual today. It may even be a very good disposition. You do not accuse yourself of despair?’
‘No, Father; presumption. I am not fit to die.’
‘There is no sin there. This is a mere scruple. Make an act of contrition for all the unrepented sins of your past life.’ (p.170)

Guy’s title is Military Liaison Officer, his job is to report on the military situation from the British Mission at a place called Begoy. Also to transcribe, encypher and send to Allied HQ in Italy the partisans’ often exorbitant and detailed requirements. He is grudgingly accepted by the ‘Jugs’. He is given a Serb ‘translator’ who speaks English with a brutal Noo Yawk accent and is, of course, a spy.

Time passes. One day the translator tells him a group of Jews is outside. A deputation ask him for help to travel to Italy. He explains that only the wounded and soldiers are flown out on the daily plane, it is not for civilians. They go away disgruntled. A month later he is asked to report on displaced persons in his area (UNRRA stands for United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration):

U.N.R.R.A. research team requires particulars displaced persons. Report any your district. This phrase, which was to be among the keywords of the decade, was as yet unfamiliar.
‘What are “displaced persons”?’ he asked the Squadron Leader.
‘Aren’t we all?’ (p.179)

Guy goes to see the hundred or so Jewish refugees who are living in absolute squalor. His visit annoys the partisan authorities who call him to a meeting more like an interrogation and tell him it is not his place to interfere in internal matters of what will become their country. Guy explains he was only following direct orders from UNRRA and gets cross.

That night he gets a telegram saying Virginia has given birth to a son. The Crouchback line will be continued. It is 4 June 1944, the day Allied forces enter Rome.

Waning force

Waugh describes a general sense of power moving away from many of the London characters. On the eve of Operation Overlord pretty much everything HOO HQ ever cooked up seems redundant. General Whale has creates of old files burned. Ian Kilbannock tries to get a posting to follow the troops to Normandy: first-hand D-Day experience will be like gold dust in a post-war career.

Ludovic and Brideshead Revisited

Ludovic has been writing a novel and sending the instalments off to a typist in Scotland to type up the manuscript. It has a plot of Shakespearian improbability and is told in over-the-top prose. Waugh tells us half a dozen other novelists were working in the same vein of over-written nostalgia:

Had he known it, half a dozen other English writers, averting themselves sickly from privations of war and apprehensions of the social consequences of the peace, were even then severally and secretly, unknown to one another, to Everard Spruce, to Coney and to Frankie, composing or preparing to compose books which would turn from drab alleys of the thirties into the odorous gardens of a recent past transformed and illuminated by disordered memory and imagination…Nor was it for all its glitter a cheerful book. Melancholy suffused all its pages and deepened towards the close. (p.188)

I wonder if Waugh is describing his own magnum opus, Brideshead Revisited, which he wrote in an intense burst of work from December 1943 to June 1944. In his preface to the 1963 edition Waugh himself described Brideshead in similar terms:

It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English – and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful.

Ludovic titles his over-written melodrama The Death Wish. To Ian Kilbannock’s surprise, his exhausted superior General Whale one evening confides he is so tired he just wants to die (p.191). Virginia gives birth to her baby son and has a nurse and has people round to see it and it is christened into the Catholic faith, but she can’t bring herself to look at it, refers to it as ‘it’ rather than ‘he’.

Germany commences its operation of sending V1 rockets to land on London. Members of Bellamy’s are not so exuberant as during the Blitz at the start of Officers and Gentlemen. The war is obviously winding down and the best is behind them. Opportunities are closed. Their record is their record. They listen to each night’s series of random explosions glumly. Each night Virginia wonders if the next one she hears will be the one to kill her (p.191). She sends the baby with Angela down to her place in the country for safety.

Virginia’s death

Sure enough a doodlebug kills Virginia, landing on the house in Carlisle Place one morning at 10am, killing Peregrine and the housekeeper, too. Angela sends an air mail latter which Guy opens after the daily plane has touched down with supplies. There is a very moving passage where Guy remembers what happened when Virginia moved in with him after their simple registrar ceremony of remarriage i.e. they went to bed together. Over the next few weeks his knee healed but so did a big hole in his heart.

Without passion or sentiment but in a friendly, cosy way they had resumed the pleasures of marriage and in the weeks while his knee mended the deep old wound in Guy’s heart and pride healed also, as perhaps Virginia had intuitively known that it might do. January had been a month of content; a time of completion, not of initiation. When Guy was passed fit for active service and his move-order was issued, he had felt as though he were leaving a hospital where he had been skilfully treated, a place of grateful memory to which he had no particular wish to return. He did not mention Virginia’s death to Frank then or later. (p.196)

I found this very moving indeed, the complexity of adult, mature, married love, after a lifetime of unhappiness and tribulation. Like many other moments in the trilogy it seems to me to strike exactly the right note of melancholy healing and closure.

Catholic convert Eloise Plessington asks Angela Box-Bender if she can take little baby Gervase off her hands, he is her godson after all. Their conversation is a pretext for speculating that maybe, from a theological point of view, this was the perfect moment for Virginia to be killed, when she was happy and had done a noble deed, a moment of maximum grace.

Some Jews escape

Guy is less moved by Virginia’s death than the fact the UNRRA asked for 2 representatives of his displaced Jews to be sent back on the same flight. the partisans refuse to let the young, best educated couple leave because the husband is the only one who can keep the generator going which (intermittently) keeps the lights on in the little cluster of buildings they all inhabit. So Guy sends two other Jews off to Italy to plead the cause of their colleagues with the authorities.

De Souza

The same flight brings in Frank de Souza who Guy and we have known since the first book when they were new officers in the Halberdiers together. De Souza has been promoted and is now Guy’s superior officer. He puts Guy in the picture. The British have leaned on the Serb government in exile in London, complete with king, to accept a new set of ministers and advisers who are more friendly to the communists and the partisans and deprecate the Jug royalists, the Chetniks. Tito is going to meet Churchill. Basically de Souza is a representative of a government which is going to sell out the Yugoslav nation to the communists.

Guy visits the local priest to arrange a mass to be said for his dead wife. The communist partisans are deeply suspicious, arrest the priest, confiscate the food Guy gave him and de Souza gives him a dressing down. The key thing is not to offend the communist partisans. Guy is disgusted.

This whole sequence leads up to a showcase military operation put on to impress the Americans and persuade them of the British support for the partisans. The communists line up an attack on an isolated guardhouse, not manned by Germans or even by the Croatian fascist Ustaše but by the pretty hopeless Croatian home guard.

It is fitting that this fiasco is witnessed by Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke, now reduced to a shambling wreck of  his former self, and by Ian Kilbannock, hyper ambitious to establish himself as a wide-ranging political commentator, along with the Loot, of course, and quite a throng of other military top brass (even someone from the Free French).

The plane crash

The plane Kilbannock, Ritchie-Hooke and his aide, the Loot and his tame British composer, the American general and his staff, a photographer and the Free Frenchman are flying in crashes in a field. It is very vividly described from the point of view of Ian who comes round to find himself lying hear the burning plane. The American general got most of them out. The crew were killed. Guy and staff from the British Mission and partisans arrive to help them onto stretchers and to a nearby sick bay.

The staged attack

The attack on the ‘enemy’ blockhouse, which is really more by way of being a small ancient castle, is, as you might expect, a fiasco. There are meant to be two brigades of partisans. One is on time the other is late, when the second one arrives the first opens fire on it. Precisely at 10am two RAF planes scream out of the blue and fire two missiles, the first pair completely missing the blockhouse, the second hitting the massive stone walls and barely scratching them. News arrives that a German patrol is on its way, at which point Waugh delivers a lovely comic exchange between the American general who’s been flown all this way to observe the indomitable partisans in action and his partisan translator:

‘A German armoured column has been warned and is on its way here.’
‘What do your men do about that?’
‘Before a German armoured column they disperse. That is the secret of our great and many victories.’ (p.221)

The partisans are sneaking away and de Souza announces lunch, when everyone sees an extraordinary spectacle. Revived by his close shave with death the night before, Ben Ritchie-Hooke advances across the bridge towards the solid little castle all alone except for the American photographer who tumbles around him like a dwarf in a medieval court. Ben assumes the partisans will be following his gallant charge but they have disappeared and he is shot down in a hail of Croat bullets. The German patrol which arrives a little later is mystified by this single-handed attack on a fortified position by a British major-general, attended in one account by a small boy, in another by a midget. War as farcical tragedy, tragic farce. Chatting with the General’s aide later, Guy learns he had, for some time, expressed a wish to die in battle. Like so many others, he, too, had a death wish.

The Jews

There’s a funeral service for the dead in the plane then things settle down. The Germans are withdrawing. The American general gives the go-ahead for the partisans to receive many more supplies. These are flown in on a daily basis. There’s little form Guy to do except watch. August turns into September 1944. Guy asks de Souza to send messages about the transport of the hundred Jews to Italy. Messages go back and forth.

At the end of September de Souza leaves. He explains that Tito has gone over to the Russians lock, stock and barrel. Winston had hoped to set up a coalition government in Belgrade comprising different ethnic groups and a political mix i.e. democrats and liberals. Not going to happen now: it’s going to be a Soviet dictatorship.

Things go quiet. The local priest is gone, who knows where, his house requisitioned by communists. Guy is followed everywhere by his translator-minder, who he likes to torment by going for long tramps through the wet countryside. On his 41st birthday, 29 October 1944, Guy receives the thrilling news that four Dakota planes will fly in to evacuate the Jews. The Jews are rounded up and marched to the landing field but a very thick fog prevents their despatch. Twice in the next couple of weeks the planes arrive but cannot land. Guy is obsessed. He prays to God to clear the fogs. God doesn’t listen, Then the first snows fall. There will be no more landings till the spring.

Then news comes of a special air drop of supplies solely for the Jews. But the partisan general in charge of the committee which liaises with the British Mission refuses to accept this and, when the supplies are parachuted in, confiscates them all.

Also in October 1944 Belgrade was liberated by the Soviet Red Army, Yugoslav Partisans, and the Bulgarian Army. With no explanation the Jews are suddenly given the supplies which had been impounded and for a week they appear in public wearing a bizarre array of English clothes and properly fed for the first time in a year. Then they disappear. The creepy young translator to the communist commissar explains that partisans and fighting forces complained that they had no boots or winter coats. The goods have been redistributed and the Jews moved to other accommodation.

A few days later Guy encounters the young Jewish woman who speaks Italian and, the first time he saw them, translated. She explains it was the peasants who complained about the largesse shown to the Jews and the partisans are dependent on the peasants for food. She explains the Jews have been moved to a former Nazi prison camp. Guy is horrified and says he will kick up a fuss when he is flown back to Italy. At which point this Jewess, Mme. Kanyi, delivers the moral of this part of the novel and maybe of the sequence as a whole:

‘There was a time when I thought that all I needed for happiness was to leave. Our people feel that. They must move away from evil. Some hope to find homes in Palestine. Most look no farther than Italy–just to cross the water, like crossing the Red Sea. Is there any place that is free from evil? It is too simple to say that only the Nazis wanted war. These Communists wanted it too. It was the only way in which they could come to power. Many of my people wanted it, to be revenged on the Germans, to hasten the creation of the national state. It seems to me there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians–not very many perhaps–who felt this. Were there none in England?’
‘God forgive me,’ said Guy. ‘I was one of them.’ (p.232)

The coast

Guy is ordered to leave Begoy. He drives through ruined villages to the coast at Split. He is ordered to Dubrovnik to liaise between a small British force which had landed under the impression it was among friends only to find itself impounded by the communist partisans.

In mid-February 1945 he is withdrawn along with the British party and finds himself in Bari a year after he arrived. There he learns that the Jews of Begoy were finally liberated when a private American sponsor paid for an expedition of trucks to drive from Italy to collect them, bribing the partisans to release them. When Guy visits them he finds them in yet another camp guarded by soldiers, albeit British. But Mme. Kanyi and her husband are not among them. Through an interpreter Guy learns they were taken off the truck by the partisans of Begoy.

The fellow traveller

Finally he gets some sense from an odious functionary named Gilpin who we first met at the parachute training centre where Guy overheard him whispering to de Souza, linking both to Sir Ralph Brompton and his set of communist agents. Now this self-satisfied lickspittle rattles off a list of typically inaccurate communist accusations – that she was the mistress of the British Liaison Officer (meaning him, Guy), that her husband sabotaged the power plant (when he was the only engineer who could keep it going), that she was caught in possession of counter-revolutionary propaganda (before leaving Guy had given her the Mission’s collection of American glossy magazines). It is a pack of lies which Gilpin goes on to compound when Gilpin goes on to say that Guy himself was almost had up on a disciplinary charge for consorting with her, but one of the other communist officers decided to let him off. He goes on to say that the couple were tried by a Peoples’ Court and ‘You may be sure that justice has been done.’

This is such a travesty of the truth, such an inversion of ‘justice’, such a betrayal of any ideas of a just war and honour, all delivered with an unctuous smile by a vile and vindictive little functionary that Guy clenches his fist to punch him. But what would be the point? It is the final absolute crushing of all Guy’s ideals of honour, charity and justice in this world.

5. Epilogue: Festival of Britain

The Festival if Britain took place in London starting in May 1951. In this novel it is the occasion for a party when Tommy Blackhouse, now a much-decorated general, assembles 15 old comrades for dinner at Bellamy’s. On the same evening Arthur Box-Bender is giving a party for his daughter’s 18th birthday, which is, the narrator emphasises, absolutely nothing like the glittering ‘coming out’ balls held for the young ladies of his generation. Disgusted by the manners and clothes of the younger generation, Box-Bender takes the first opportunity to get away from it and strolls down to St James’s Street and into Bellamy’s just as the raucous Blackhouse party comes tumbling out of its room. Typically quick drunken conversations allow Waugh very beautifully and neatly, as in an old fashioned novel, to tell us the post-war fates of his characters:

  • Tommy Blackhouse had returned to England in May. He was retiring from the army with many decorations, a new, pretty wife and the rank of major-general.
  • Ivor Claire had spent six months in Burma with the Chindits, had done well, collected a D.S.O. and an honourably incapacitating wound. He was often in Bellamy’s now. His brief period of disgrace was set aside and almost forgotten.
  • Trimmer had disappeared. All Tommy’s enquiries failed to find any trace of him. Some said he had jumped ship in South Africa. Nothing was known certainly.
  • Box-Bender lost his seat in parliament in the great Labour landslide of 1945.
  • Box-Bender was defeated by Gilpin, the revolting wretch who gloatingly told Guy about the execution of the Kanyis. He is now a Labour MP, not popular in the House but making his mark and had lately become an under-secretary.
  • Guy has sold the Castello Crouchback. To Ludovic of all people.
  • Ludovic’s long novel, The Death Wish, which we saw him working on, old nearly a million copies in America and they’ve just filmed it. He’s rich.
  • Improbably, but in a gesture towards poetic justice, it appears ‘the Loot’, Lieutenant Padfield, has become Ludovic’s fixer and general factotum.
  • Guy has married Domenica, daughter of Lady Plessington, a family friend and godmother to Gervase (Guy’s son by Virginia). He has taken back the property at Broome and is just about making a go of running the farm. In the end, after all his tribulations, things turn out well for Guy.

Summary

Taken individually all three novels are brilliant, combining comedy, complicated storylines, vivid characters and an extraordinary grasp of the complexities of military and social life during the war. Taken together, the Sword of Honour trilogy is surely one of the greatest achievements of English literature in the twentieth century.

The final sequence of events in which Guy agrees to marry Virginia and thus do the one good, selfless deed he had been seeking to do since the start of the war, in which she is then killed by a V rocket but the baby saved; and his long attempts to do right by the Jews in Croatia; all make for a very moving, sometimes overwhelming cocktail of emotions. It feels deep and rich and true to the complex mix of hopes and hard work and frustration and small victories which life is really like. The trilogy as a whole is an extraordinary achievement.


History of the language

New phrases

It’s a very minor point, but these books contain occasional references to phrases which have just entered the language at the moment he’s describing. Thus book one refers to ‘the already advertised spirit of Dunkirk’. The second half of book two is titled ‘In The Picture’, a phrase Waugh ironically describes thus:

Trimmer remained quiet while he was ‘put in the picture’. It was significant, Ian Kilbannock reflected while he listened to the exposition of GSO II (Planning) that this metaphoric use of ‘picture’ had come into vogue at the time when all the painters of the world had finally abandoned lucidity.

As this snippet suggests, Waugh is old bufferishly critical, disdainful or contemptuous of these new-fangled phrases, using antiseptic speech marks to handle them with. Same happens in this book, when the literary editor Spruce is said to receive ‘fan letters’ (p.42). When he refers to Guy taking the ‘tube railway’ (p.47) he sounds like a ridiculous old fuddy-duddy. Or when Virginia says:

‘I just feel I ought to have what Mr. Troy calls a ‘check-up.'”

He tells us the working class term ‘ducks’ had become prevalent during the Blitz. Here’s Mrs Bristow, Kerstie Kilbannock’s cleaner:

“Just off, ducks,” she said using a form of address that had become prevalent during the blitz.

In fact Waugh gives us more samples of the working class speech of the time than in the previous books:

  • ‘Sorry, sir,’ said the [the Staff Captain’s batman] as he discovered the tousled figure. ‘Didn’t know you was here.’ (p.114)
  • ‘Cor,’ he said, ‘just take a dekko at the little perisher.’ (p.115)

Americanisms

Having had occasional contact with the film world during the 1930s (and having, outside the timeline of the novel, been to Hollywood in 1947) Waugh has picked up plenty of Americanisms which he handles with distaste:

Stirred by the heavy North African wine, de Souza’s imagination rolled into action as though at a “story conference” of jaded script-writers. (p.111)

Other Americanisms are handled with care:

Here was something most unwelcome, put into my hands; something which I believe the Americans describe as ‘beyond the call of duty’; not the normal behaviour of an officer and a gentleman… (p.151)

And American food, creeping in everywhere:

A civilian waiter brought them their pink gins. Guy asked him in Italian for olives. He answered in English almost scornfully: “No olives for senior officers,” and brought American peanuts. (p.157)

It is sweet that he uses phrases like ‘motor bus’ and ‘wireless’. In this respect Waugh is a good example of the futility of thinking that if you use old-fashioned words and are openly contemptuous of new-fangled phrases, you can somehow prevent social change. No-one can prevent social change nor the steady evolution of the language. King Canute on the beach.

The wireless

It is interesting that Waugh detested the earliest signs of muzak. This occasionally crops up in the other novels, where he had shown a fuddy-duddy objection to the ‘wireless’ and, surprisingly for a member of the late 1920s Bright Young Things, an antipathy to jazz. It becomes more noticeable in this novel. Thus the ageing Guy shows a mild resentment of:

The new young officers were conscripts who liked to spend their leisure listening to jazz on the wireless.

And at the parachute training centre the incessant music from the ‘wireless’ infuriates the usually mild-mannered Guy:

‘Can’t you stop this infernal noise?’
‘What noise was that?’
‘The wireless.’
‘Oh, no. I couldn’t do that. It’s laid on special. Piped all through the camp. It isn’t all wireless anyway. Some of it’s records. You’ll soon find you get so you don’t notice it.’

It is characteristic of Waugh that he associates enjoyment of ‘wireless’ programmes to the uneducated lower classes, for example, Kerstie Kilbannock’s cleaner:

Kerstie did not sleep long, but when she came downstairs at noon, she found that the lure of Bellamy’s had proved stronger than Ian’s caution and that the house was empty save for Mrs. Bristow, who was crowning her morning’s labour with a cup of tea and a performance on the wireless of “Music While You Work.” (p.90)

Ian and Kerstie Kilbannock returned to London from Scotland on the night of Childermas. He went straight to his office, she home, where Mrs. Bristow was smoking a cigarette and listening to the wireless. (p.148)


Credit

Unconditional Surrender by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1961. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

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