Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh (1952)

‘I’m what’s called a “conducting officer”. I take American journalists round fighter stations. But I shall find something else soon. The great thing is to get into uniform; then you can start moving yourself round. It’s a very exclusive war at present. Once you’re in, there’s every opportunity.’
(Lord Ian Kilbannock explaining to Guy the importance of getting on in a war, Men at Arms)

Men at Arms is the first in what developed into a trilogy of novels about the Second World War which Waugh named The Sword of Honour trilogy. It tells the story of devout Catholic, conservative, standoffish but honourable and frequently depressed fellow, Guy Crouchback:

Thirty-five years old, slight and trim, plainly foreign but not so plainly English, young, now, in heart and step…

The novel starts with the outbreak of the Second World War and follows Guy’s long, clumsy and sometimes very funny progress through the military machine, with a world of details about the farcical bureaucratic aspects of army life.

But the book also includes, like a persistent background hum, Guy’s deep Catholic faith and his feel for the ‘old’ values of religion and an older traditional way of life embodied in the figure of Guy’s venerable father, Mr Crouchback.

And the book’s other understated but persistent theme is for Guy’s loneliness and isolation, his unhappiness, sometimes sinking as low as actual despair. For too long, the narrative tells us, Guy has inhabited a ‘dry, empty place’ of the soul.

The Crouchback family

How so? Well, Guy’s character is carefully constructed to evoke the same kind of pity and compassion he was seeking to evoke in Brideshead Revisited, the sense of the decline and fall of a once noble family, the sense of quietly heroic old buffers trying to keep up ancient values and dignity in a world gone to hell.

Guy’s father is over 70, a quiet, decent man of deep devout Catholic faith who has nobly weathered a series of setbacks. He is the representative of a family which can trace its lineage back to the time of Henry I. For centuries the Crouchback family have lived in a country estate named Broome, somewhere in north Devon. But the family suffered a) personal and b) financial setbacks.

On the personal front, Mr Crouchback’s wife gave him four children then died young, leaving him with a permanent sense of sadness. Worse was to come because, at the outbreak of the Great War, the eldest son and heir, Gervase, went straight from his Catholic private school, Downside, into the Irish Guards, where he managed to get himself killed on his first day in the trenches. Then the second son, Ivo, always a loner and oddball, when he was 26 went missing from home and was discovered months later, holed up in a lodging in Cricklewood where he was deliberately starving himself to death. He was brought home but the damage was done and he died soon after.

There was an only daughter, Angela, who married a non-Catholic, an ambitious chap who’s gone on to become a successful Conservative MP, Arthur Box-Bender.

And Guy himself. Guy also ‘married out’ of the family religion, marrying the beautiful non-Catholic socialite, Virginia. He took his younger son’s share of the diminished family fortune and settled in Kenya, running a farm beside a mountain lake where the flamingos rose at dawn first white then pink. Wow. But his wife pined and said she needed to go to England for a break and then, after 6 months or so, wrote to announce she was leaving him, for a mutual friend named Tommy Blackhouse.

‘Poor Guy, you did get in a mess, didn’t you? Money gone, me gone, all in one go. I suppose in the old days they’d have said I’d ruined you.’
‘They might.’

Now, Guy is a Catholic, his father is a Catholic, his sister is a Catholic and so they all take it for granted that, although he can get divorced according to the law of the land, he cannot be divorced in the eyes of God. In other words, he will never be able to remarry, never be able to have children, in particular a son. Therefore the family name is doomed to die out. This is the pessimistic scenario Waugh has engineered for his characters, one source of the sense of loss and mild depression which hangs over the figure of Guy Crouchback.

His non-Catholic brother-in-law Box-Bender is just the most prominent of their friends who think this is all nonsense: Guy should just remarry, have children, reclaim the home farm, revive the estate and the family name. Where’s the problem? When Guy meets up with his ex-wife again in London, she also is blissfully light-hearted about it all:

‘You never married again?’
‘How could I?’
‘Darling, don’t pretend your heart was broken for life.’
‘Apart from my heart, Catholics can’t remarry, you know.’
‘Oh, that. You still keep to all that?’
‘More than ever.’

But Box-Bender, Virginia and all the rest of them are pagans, non-believers, not part of the clique, not part of sinn fein (Irish for ‘ourselves’), of the cosa nostra (Italian for ‘our thing’), of the special ones. They are not Catholics, and Catholicism, at least in Waugh’s hands, is not only a theological but a sociological marker, which sets the believer apart and, though he doesn’t overplay this, pretty obviously marks them as morally and spiritually superior to everyone else around him.

So much for a) the personal; as to b) the financial situation, in the aftermath of the First World War the estate became slowly too large and costly for Mr Crouchback to run. So he sold off the contents (attending the auction himself), let the house to a convent and retired to a hotel in Matchet, a nearby seaside resort.

However, it is important for Waugh and his characters that the ancient rituals do not completely die out and so ‘the sanctuary lamp still burned at Broome as of old’ and Guy’s father attends mass there once a year.

So, both financially and personally, the Crouchback family has fallen a long way and Guy is its embattled, lonely, often depressed last representative.

Guy is a loner

Guy’s Kenya period is underplayed, referred to only in a couple of sentences. Much more is made of the family’s Italian property, ‘Castello Crouchback’, on the idyllic Italian island of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, a property bought by Guy’s grandfather back in the time of Queen Victoria. In fact the novel opens with a historical passage describing the first arrival of those grandparents on a yachting holiday at the island and their decision to buy the run-down ruins.

You might have thought these opening passages would afford luxury descriptions of pre-war Italy, and they do, a bit, but what they’re really for is to establish a) the penumbra of sadness which hangs over Guy ever since his wife left him eight years earlier, and b) the way he can never really make friends. He’s always an outsider. The Italian villagers take to nearly all the other expats on the island, they are sympatico, but Guy is not simpatico.

He was not loved, Guy knew, either by his household or in the town. He was accepted and respected but he was not simpatico.

Guy is lonely. Inside him is a blankness, an emptiness he can’t put into words, his imagination a prey to mournful images:

Sometimes he imagined himself serving the last mass for the last Pope in a catacomb at the end of the world.

It is against this complex family and personal background that the declaration of war comes on 3 September 1939 and (like many other men) Guy is hugely relieved to escape the frustrations and unhappiness of personal life, and make a clear and unambiguous commitment: to return to England to serve his king and country and fight against unambiguous evil.

Guy back in England

All the above is explained in a sort of prologue to the book. The main action of the novel opens with the declaration of war and Guy packing his stuff to return from his Italian island home to England to serve king and country.

Guy arrives in London hoping to find a role in the army straightaway. He goes to his club, Bellamy’s, every day. Everyone is in turmoil. Everyone has evacuated their families from their London places and sent them down to the country. Box-Bender is locking up his London place and moving in with two male friends. Guy embarks on a campaign to get himself into the army, buttonholing military friends and writing countless letters to ministries and old contacts. No joy.

So he goes to stay with his sister Angela at her home in Gloucestershire.

Box-Bender’s house was a small, gabled manor in a sophisticated village where half the cottages were equipped with baths and chintz.

In a typically comic/farcical detail, their hallway is stuffed with crates of ‘Hittite tablets’ evacuated from the British Museum.

Guy is impressed by Arthur and Angela’s son, Tony, young and keen, who’s already got himself a place in the army, lucky blighter. They gossip about all the local families, some who’ve left the country altogether (the Abercrombies have decamped to Jamaica) and about the numerous accidents resulting from the blackout. Scandalised reports of the crime wave prompted by the blackout, lots of muggings.

After staying the night Guy travels down to see his father at the pub, the Marine Arms, in Matchet, where he took rooms as a long-term resident after he relinquished the estate at Broome. Like everywhere in England it’s in a tizzy because of the war, packed with an unusual numbers of guests, some of the staff have been conscripted etc. In the dining room, his father introduces him to Tickeridge, a hairy old cove who’s a major in the Halberdiers. When Guy expresses a genuine wish to be in the army, Tickeridge says he’ll see what he can do. Ha! Contacts. It’s not what you know, or who you know – it’s who your father knows!

Guy joins the army

And so Guy finds himself one of a new cohort of officers in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, nicknamed the Apple Jacks and the Copper Heads, a fictional regiment which is going to be central to his career in the army and all three novels. His closest associate is a lightly eccentric fellow called Apthorpe.

Both being that much older, they find themselves referred to as ‘uncle’. Lots of detail of army protocol, an extension of the strict rules around correct dress which were drummed into him at school, then university. Regimental traditions. Pen portraits of the other new officers, namely de Souza, Sarum-Smith, Leonard and a slightly shifty chap called Trimmer.

Guy joins his regiment

Guy joins the Halberdiers at their peacetime barracks. There is basic training and squarebashing i.e. drill on parade grounds. There is a lot of fuss about dressing correctly for different functions at different times of day, for example, the officers have to dress appropriately, and immaculately, for dinner in the mess hall.

It is obvious to me, at any rate, how life in the army follows naturally from life at prep school, life at private school, life at Oxford or Cambridge, and then life in the kind of upper class country house which Waugh idealises. What they all have in common are servants who do all the drudgery, change bedding, do all laundry, clean shoes and boots and cook and bring drinks. Their country houses are full of servants, their junior boys fag for the seniors at private school, there are ‘scouts’ to clean their rooms at Oxford and waiters bring meals in hall dinners, but on the other side of the ledger, in return for all these privileges, it is expected that the beneficiary, the boy growing up in a country house, at private school or Oxford, and then an officer in a good regiment, will follow the rules and there are lots and lots of rules governing all aspects of behaviour, dress, speech and thought.

It is a world of huge privilege but also of tremendous constraints. There is often no legal punishment for breaking the rules, but the army has a wide variety of sanctions for chaps who do not behave like an officer and a gentleman, and the narrow society of London clubs which Guy moves in also has its sanctions, its ability to cut or snub anyone who behaves incorrectly.

Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook

We are introduced to the feared and renowned figure of Ben Ritchie-Hooke, who will become their brigadier. I don’t really understand the structure of the British army, but I think what is happening is that , now war has been declared, all regiments, which had been allowed to dwindle in peacetime, are being rapidly up to full strength, recently retired officers asked back in and new officers being recruited. This is the new intake of officers which Guy is part of. First they will be trained, then newly recruited and conscripted ordinary soldiers will arrive and be put in their charge. At some point the regiment will become fully operational and Ben Ritchie-Hook will come into full command.

Throughout the first part of this novel this process takes place, observed from Guy’s point of view, sometimes, confusing the reader, sometimes confusing even Guy who’s in the thick of it.

Anyway, Ritchie-Hook is an almost Monty Python level of a caricature of a senior army officer. He wears an eye patch and a black leather glove on one hand, having lost an eye and fingers and thumb in battle. A sharp line is drawn between the initial commander in chief of the barracks who oversees thorough but pedestrian training, and the terrific change in mood which takes place when Ritchie-Hook arrives and takes over. He is all about biffing the enemy.

For example, the initial rifle range practice consists of long boring afternoons loading your gun, lying down, firing at a distant target, and having the target monitor flag whether you got a hit, a bullseye etc. By contrast, under Ritchie-Hook the brigadier himself runs up and down the trench at the end of the range waving a stick with a tin hat on it above ground level and defies his men to hit it. Later they have to crawl on their hands and knees just under a barrage of live fire.

Ritchie-Hook is a wonderful comic creation and the trigger for a series of comic incidents. For example he first appears at a drinks party held by a senior officer where, through a series of verbal misunderstandings, he mistakes Guy for Apthorpe the fellah who was in Africa for years, gruffly dismissing the fact that one of his officers seems to have spent the 1930s in Italy, no good that, don’t like the sound of that – which of course refers to Guy who keeps very silent about the fact for the rest of the evening. Comedy of manners.

but he also allows Waugh to create the kind of war he wants, which is farce. If you read war books from the Great War you are left in no doubt that it was a tragedy of enormous scale. Anyone coming to Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy expecting the same will be surprised. It is overwhelmingly concerned with the boring humdrum details of training and office politics (as officers jostle for promotion) and bureaucracy and pettifogging rules, interspersed with moments of ludicrous farce. Only at the very end are any guns fired in anger and then only a dozen or so and for a few pages, on a tiny night-time excursion onto a beach in Africa which is over half an hour after it began and achieves nothing.

Southsand prep school

The officers are sent to a place called Kut-al-Imara House at Southsand-on-sea. It is a preparatory school, vacated by staff and pupils so the army can take over. Its rooms are named after World War One battles and, as Guy explores it on arrival, he paints a very vivid picture of a certain kind of lower league school, redolent of embarrassment and shame.

He leant against a coil of antiquated iron pipes and was surprised to find them hot. They seemed to lack all power of radiation; a yard from them there was no sensible warmth. He could imagine a row of little boys struggling to sit on them, tight-trousered boys with adenoids and chilblains; or perhaps it was a privilege to sit there enjoyed only by prefects and the First Eleven. In its desolation he could see the whole school as it had been made familiar to him in many recent realistic novels; an enterprise neither progressive nor prosperous. The assistant masters changed often, he supposed, arriving with bluff, departing with bluster; half the boys were taken at surreptitiously reduced fees; none of them ever won a scholarship or passed into a reputable public school or returned for an Old Boys’ Day or ever thought of his years there with anything but loathing and shame. The History lessons were patriotic in design, turned to ridicule by the young masters. There was no school song at Kut-al-Imara House. All this Guy thought he snuffed in the air of the forsaken building.

It’s one more image which brings the reader up short and makes you realise just how much Waugh was writing for readers of his own class and not for the humble likes of you and I. And also one more example of the way this class obsesses about its prep and private schools. It’s a common observation that Waugh’s generation of writers – including George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, W.H. Auden and many others – never really seem to have escaped the clothes, drill, mannerisms and world view inculcated by an English public school system which reached a kind of acme in their day.

And then the equally commonly commented-on fact that so many of the institutions of English public life – the quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge, the quadrangles of the inns of court for lawyers, the quads and committee rooms of Westminster, the parade grounds and officers messes of the army – are a continuation of that ordered, regimented, elite, blinkered, narrow but highly effective view of life.

The characters frequently compare this or that army regulation to ‘school’, the narrator compares this or that situation to something similar at a public school. It comes as no surprise when a prep school moves into Malchett and hire old Mr Crouchback as a supply teacher, teaching, of course, not maths or geography or something useful, but, of course, Classics, ancient Greek to be precise. Apthorpe even takes Guy, one drunk night, in a taxi out to the location of his prep school Staplehurst, now, he discovers to his horror, demolished and a modern estate built over it. Sic transit…

Anyway, life at Southsand is the backdrop for Waugh giving a thousand and one little details of army life, starting with the typical ‘foul-up’ that Guy and his cohort of officers arrive at Southsand station an hour after the bus arranged to pick them up had left and having to make their own way by taxi. Bureaucratic cock-up typical of hundreds and hundreds more which Guy will become used to in army life.

There are comic incidents. At a guest night for the regiment the officers end up getting drunk and playing a game of rugby with a waste paper basket and when everyone piles onto Guy his knee is painfully wrenched. It swells up and so for weeks afterwards, he wears a bulky dressing, needs a cane to walk and is excused drill practice.

When his fellow older officer, Apthorpe also manages to injure his leg on a drunken night out, the two eldest new officers, who had both already gained the ambivalent nickname ‘uncle’, both appear limping and using canes, to general hilarity. The comedy is like that. Schoolboy comedy.

Similarly, Guy discovers he can’t actually see the targets at the firing range at the statutory 300 yard distance, thus discovering that he needs glasses, but on a whim, instead has a monocle made by a local optician, which solves his firing range problem but, of course, also contributes to making him a figure of fun.

Another little plot strand is the Italian restaurant kept by Mr Pelecci which they take to frequenting, chatty Mr Pelecci often sitting with them and chatting about the news. They don’t at first realise that he is a spy.

Catholic theology on Guy’s marriage

The officers are allowed out to explore the town. Guy and Apthorpe join the town yachting club, chiefly for its bar. He meets a Mr Goodall, Ambrose Goodall, who turns out to be a Catholic convert with a hobby of studying the old Catholic families of England. They have lunch and dine and go to the yacht club bar and it emerges that Goodall knows the history of Broome and Guy’s own family. And then, in the context of another family, in passing remarks that, theologically, it is no sin or crime for a man to have sex with his divorced wife as, in the eyes of God, she has never been separated from him. Although Virginia has been unfaithful, he hasn’t, and so the marriage is still, theologically speaking, valid.

Seduction of Virginia

This leads to disastrous episode where Guy tracks Virginia down in London. She is, typically for him and the circles they move in, staying at Claridge’s hotel. He moves into a room down the hall and she is initially delighted to bump into him, as she is delighted to bump into everyone, darling, during this beastly ghastly war. He invites her round for drinks and it is then that he puts his arm along the back of the sofa and makes an attempt to kiss her. Virginia thinks he’s being ridiculous. If you’re going to do it, do it properly, and puts down her drink and kisses him back.

But then she asks what’s brought this one and Guy makes the disastrous mistake of explaining the theological position i.e. she is still his wife in the eyes of God and it is still theologically permitted for him to have sex with her. This shocks and horrified her much more than if it were a casual attempt at sex and she stands up and moves to the fireplace expressing horror, at which point Guy really screws things up by venting 8 years of frustration and accusing her of being a tart. Then there is a big silence when they both react to what has happened and been said.

Virginia: ‘You take too much for granted.’
Guy: ‘That’s an absolutely awful expression,’ said Guy. ‘Only tarts use it.’
Virginia: ‘Isn’t that rather what you think I am?’
Guy: ‘Isn’t it rather what you are?’

Guy grovellingly apologises, more because it’s bad form and poor manners than untrue, and they sort of patch things up. But, later, leaving Claridge’s, the incident does have the positive effect that it seems to have laid a ghost. His true feelings for Virginia have come out and he feels some sense of closure. It is  14 February 1940.

Apthorpe

His fellow ‘new’ officer, Apthrope, is arguably the dominant figure of the novel. Indeed the three main sections the book is divided into each use a Latin word to describe the three stages of Apthorpe’s progression, namely: Apthorpe Gloriosus, Apthorpe Furibundus and Apthorpe Immolatus where gloriosus is self evident, furibundus means ‘frantic, frenzied, maddened’ and immolatus means ‘having been immolated or sacrificed’.

Apthorpe’s character fascinates Guy from the start, his comic obsessions and behaviour. Thus, when Apthorpe is promoted to rank of captain ahead of Guy, he insists Guy salute him, and asks him to ask all the other new officers to do so, too. This, apparently, was technically correct but not necessary and makes Apthorpe look like a pedantic fool; in fact his fellow officers play various games with the act of saluting or not saluting when Apthorpe expects it which drives the poor man into a frenzy.

A platoon of signallers are billeted with the Halberdiers and Apthorpe insists they conform to Halberdier discipline and procedure, which leads to a long and increasingly embittered feud with their commanding officer, Dunn, which eventually escalates up to commanding officer level. Although he has been promoted. Apthorpe is acquiring a reputation as an eccentric.

Apthorpe and the saga of the Thunder-Box

One of Apthorpe’s eccentricities has been carrying round an enormous amount of lumber and ‘kit’ and ‘gear’ with him which he insists was vital to his much-mentioned but obscure ‘time in Africa’. ‘Somewhere among these possessions lay something rare and mysterious which Apthorpe spoke of as his “Bush Thunder-box”.’

This develops into the book’s best-known comic sequence, the kind of extended comic digression which characterised the best of his 1930s comic novels, reminiscent of Basil Seal’s scams in Put Out More Flags. The thunder-box is a beautifully made Edwardian chemical toilet, a cube of solid wood, which opens to reveal a porcelain seat and bowl. But why? asks Guy: there are toilets just down the hallway. ‘The clap old chap,’ Apthrope confidently explains. ‘A chap can never be too careful.’ So Guy watches Apthorpe surreptitiously, one evening, when the other chaps are in the game room, haul this big box out of the general lumber room and drag it across the prep school playing fields into a little games storeroom hidden among the bushes. For a couple of days Apthorpse disappears for ten minutes at a time and only Guy knows where he’s going.

However, disaster strikes when one evening Apthorpe encounters fearsome Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke exiting the clump of bushes which conceal his secret. Both are forced to salute each other but very uneasily. Apthorpe tells Guy the terrible news but worse is to follow. Next day Apthorpe goes for his daily evacuation and is horrified to see a sign pinned on the little outhouse saying the place is out of bounds to everyone below the rank of brigadier.

Apthorpe anxiously discusses the situation with Guy and ropes him into moving the dread device. So one evening they sneak down to the outhouse and manhandle it some distance away to another hiding place, returning very satisfied with their work. A few evenings later Apthorpe makes his usual excuses and slips off and a few minutes later Guy hears a muffled explosion. He knows at once what it is, and sets off running across the playing fields and into the bushes. He discovers a dazed Apthorpe sprawled on his face a few yards from the thunder-box which is now a splintered smoking wreck. Ritchie-Hook, in one of his famous practical jokes, had rigged the thing with a small explosive device.

The sequence of events themselves are fairly funny, but what turns it into award-winning farce is the tremendous seriousness with which Apthorpe takes it all, and the completely straight-faced way Guy plays along with him.

Penkirk

The regiment is moved to Penkirk not far from Edinburgh in a camp of tents. A castle is nearby. Here Apthorpe’s eccentricities continue to flourish. It is here that he commences his long-running vendetta against the officer in the Signalling regiment.

It is here that the first division of commands is given and Guy is bitter to be given only a platoon while Apthorpe is promoted above him. Only later does a friendly superior explain this is because Apthorpe is actually fingered for promotion into purely administrative positions whereas the Brigadier doesn’t want anyone in command of actual fighting units who hasn’t started out with experience of commanding a platoon. That cheers him up a bit.

A new commander is assigned, one Hayter, who Guy comes to dislike. There is a great deal about relations between the new officers of his rank and the complex array of commanding officers who come and go as the regiment is restructured and reorganised.

There is a long sequence which Waugh cleverly arranges around the one hundred and forty-three questions in the Army Training Memorandum No. 31 War. April 1940 which all the officers receive and are ordered to complete.

On 10 May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, replacing the hapless Neville Chamberlain. It is worth lingering over what Waugh, or at least his character Guy, thinks of him:

Guy knew of Mr. Churchill only as a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the Popular Front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and of Lloyd George.

He thinks he’ll be better than the other chap. But this is a novel and another character, Major Erskine, who, in the dim-witted nature of these characters is thought to be ‘brainy’ because he reads novels and is a bit scruffy, this Erskine is made to say, prophetically:

‘Churchill is about the only man who may save us from losing this war.’

The difference between history and novels is in novels opinions, ideas, perspectives are distributed among different characters for dramatic effect. Might be worth also quoting the place where Waugh gives his clearest explanation of Guy’s motive for fighting, for taking part in this war:

[Guy] was a good loser, but he did not believe his country would lose this war; each apparent defeat seemed strangely to sustain it. There was in Romance great virtue in unequal odds. There were in morals two requisites for a lawful war, a just cause and the chance of victory. The cause was now, past all question, just. The enemy was exorbitant. His actions in Austria and Bohemia had been defensible. There was even a shadow of plausibility in his quarrel with Poland. But now, however victorious, he was an outlaw. And the more victorious he was the more he drew to himself the enmity of the world and the punishment of God.

Note the complete absence of political analysis. Waugh doesn’t, for example declare his protagonist an enemy of fascism or Nazism (in fact, having lived in Italy for most of the 1930s, Guy has a relaxed attitude to the reality of Italian fascism on the ground). Certainly not in the way that English left-wing or liberal thinkers thought of Nazism as unambiguously evil and a threat to all notions of freedom. Guy just seems to think that in invading Poland, Nazi Germany has gone a bit too far. And then this phrase ‘the enmity of God.’ Is Waugh serious? Well, his character probably is. Guy is a devout and in many ways simple Catholic, with a simple sense of right and wrong.

The flap

All this is taking place in the spring and early summer of 1940 which saw, in the wider world of war, the Russian invasion of Finland and the German invasion of Norway, this latter prompting a badly organised and chaotic British attempt to land troops and hold the German advance. (Waugh’s earlier novel, Put Out More Flags, includes towards the end a passage describing the ill-fated involvement of one of the characters, Cedric Lyne, in this badly organised fiasco.) And then, of course, the evacuation of Dunkirk, 26 May to 4 June 1940.

All kinds of rumour reach our chaps and this is a useful social history aspect of the novel, what makes it more than history, that it doesn’t record what happened, but what educated people of the time thought was happening and was going to happen.

Aldershot

So they’re sent to Aldershot in Surrey, with some description of the surrounding sandy heathland. Apthorpe distinguishes himself again by, the second he’s put in charge when the commander in chief is briefly absent, causing a great panic when he claims he has reports of German paratroopers landing.

Maps of Calais are issued as if they’re going to be shipped across to fight there, the officers memorise them, discuss lines of defence and so on. Guy’s platoon is dominated by the impressive figure of Company Sergeant Major Rawkes. Guy leads his men on a training exercise on the big barren heathland, everyone gets lost, some men go absent without leave, no-one knows what is going on, rumours fly in all directions.

Tony

Guy receives two letters from his father, the first one (2 June 1940) lamenting that his nephew, Tony, appears to be missing presumed killed in France, the second one (12 June 1940) with the reassuring news that he is in fact a prisoner of war, but the doleful commentary that a) it was shameful that his regiment surrendered to the Germans, but they were ordered to and b) it is likely to be a long war and so a shame that such a fine fellow is going to spend the best years of his young manhood behind bars. He receives both letters on the day the Germans march into Paris, 14 June 1940.

The world has shifted on its axis. Nobody expected France to fall at all, and certainly not so quickly. Now Britain really is alone. Churchill gave his ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech on 4 June 1940.

North Cornwall

The regiment is moved to Cornwall. Waugh details the boredom of hanging round not knowing what the future holds. There are wild rumours that the Germans are about to take Limerick in Ireland and the Halberdiers are about to be shipped over to defend it. Much studying maps of Limerick. Nothing happens. The officers have to cook up ways to keep the men entertained, lectures (Guy gives a well received one about wine making, knowledge he gained in Italy). Football. Evening games of bingo which, surprisingly, Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke recommends and calls ‘housey-housey’.

Extraneous figures came to add to the congestion. An odd, old captain like a cockatoo in the gaudy service-dress of a defunct regiment of Irish cavalry. He said he was the cipher officer and was roped in to lecture on ‘Court Life at St. Petersburg’.

Seen from Waugh’s perspective, army life is one surreal and farcical event after another. This is what makes the books so supremely readable and enjoyable, the tone of quiet humour which suffuses them, occasionally rising to moments of supreme farce.

South Cornwall

Then they are ordered to pack up everything and shunted on a series of trains across to the South Cornwall coast where they are ordered to guard several miles of heavily barbed wired beach. Top brass come for an inspection and one of the intelligence officers goes out of his way to emphasise the risk of fifth columnists, a concept and phrase which had only recently been coined, by General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

This leads to an incident when Guy has a touch of the Apthorpes and reacts with paranoia when two officers turn up at his HQ (a requisitioned hotel) claiming to be from A Company, the 5th Loamshires. Guy suspects them of being fifth columnists, is impressed by their accurate seeming papers and posh English accents, but nevertheless instructs the sergeant major to take over the bren gun next on the clifftop and cover the pair as they’re taken down for a dip in the sea by a soldier he deputes for the job. If they make one funny move, the sergeant major is to shoot them. The dismay of Sergeant Major Rawkes who had, until this moment, thought Guy wasn’t too bad, for an officer, is very funny.

Brook Park

They’re ordered to pack up yet again and entrain for Brook Park in Surrey. Here occurs an event which the sardonic and witty fellow officer, de Souza, nicknames ‘the Languishing of Leonard’. Early on we had met officer Leonard’s wife, Daisy, who is distinctly not the right class, who drops her aitches and speaks out of turn at dinners or drinks for the regimental officers. She has followed her man from base to base, taking hotel rooms and now announces that she is pregnant. She kicks up an immense fuss and wants Leonard seconded to a safe domestic posting so he can be with her. Very sheepishly Leonard falls in line with her demands, secures his posting, from which point onwards the Adjutant, or acting head of the regiment, requests that his name never be mentioned again. Shame.

Liverpool

Next thing they know they are given two days leave (Guy goes to visit his father and finds him, of course, knee deep in the classics text he’s teaching the little chaps at the evacuated prep school) before returning to barracks at which point the entire regiment is packed up and sent to Liverpool.

After the usual chaos, embarking, disembarking and so on, they finally set sail to the Bay of Biscay, are joined by a fleet and sail on to the coast of Africa, near Dakar, to be precise (capital of what is now Senegal).

Here the fleet moors and numerous high level meetings are held. Initially Brigadier Ritchie-Hook is excited because they are finally going to get to land and biff the enemy. But this turns to bitter frustration when the raid is called off. The ordinary soldiers celebrate but Guy is called to a meeting of senior officers, namely the Brigadier, Colonel Tickeridge and the ship’s captain.

The beach raid in Africa

Ritchie-Hooke is furious that the raid has been called off because naval intelligence has some aerial photos of the beaches which could be interpreted to indicate that they’re criss-crossed with wire. But in this little meeting he is gleeful because he and Tickeridge have persuaded the captain of the ship to let them send a tiny little landing party to ascertain whether this is true. And Guy is to lead it.

He is told to go and choose a dozen men who will be taken aboard a launch by a navy captain, shuttled ashore under cover of darkness, faces blacked, carrying minimal equipment. Their mission is to ascertain the existence or not of ‘wire’ and capture a souvenir, a coconut, say, as proof of their trip.

The atmosphere of tense excitement is beautifully conveyed. There’s a beautiful little description as Guy and his men wait in the hold for the little sally-port, or door low down in the side of the ship, to be opened so they can climb a short distance down a rope ladder into the launch:

The lights were all turned off in the hold before the sally-port was opened by one of the crew. It revealed a faintly lighter square and a steamy breath of the sea.

Well, to be brief, they chug onto the beach, slip over the side and wade through the warm water, tiptoe up the ashore and do, indeed, find wire, rows of wire amateurishly strung across it. Then sounds and someone starts firing and then lots of guns start firing. Guy blows his whistle for general retreat but one of his chaps goes haring forward into the darkness. The rest return to the boat unharmed and the sailor captaining it reports everyone present and correct but Guy knows he saw someone else and goes back to check.

Just as well he did, for he discovers one of his men crawling back through the dunes, wounded in the leg. Guy curses, runs forward, supports him arm over shoulder back to the launch, heaves him in and the launch turns and putters back to the ship. As he helps him Guy realises this disobedient man is none other than… Ben Ritchie-Hook. Not only that, but after he is manhandled into the launch he slips into Guy’s lap the object he’s been hugging close all this time. It is the severed head of an African soldier.

The ‘gruesome’ in Waugh

What to make of this? It is at the same time farcical, comic and gruesome. But readers will remember this is the sometimes puzzlingly extreme tone he takes in many of his books. It is as if part of his approach to humour is to occasionally crank it up to broad farce, and then sometimes to take farce way over the top into The Gruesome.

It’s easy to forget that in his very first novel, Decline and Fall, when the young innocent Paul Pennyfeather finds himself in prison, he discovers that the padre is none other than one of his teachers at the crappy private school he taught at in Wales, Prendergast, who has retrained as a chaplain, and how the prison governor with his fancy ideas, decides it is a good thing to try and reform one of their most notorious prisoners by allowing him to express himself in the carpentry shop – and how this prisoner takes the first opportunity to saw off the padre’s head.

Ritchie-Hooke later explains that the man raised his gun at him so Ritchie chucked a grenade which blew him to bits, one of the bits of which was the head (which he proceeded to ‘trim’ a bit). The beheading of the African is no more offensive than the decapitation of Prendergast i.e. a bit offensive against good taste and restraint. What definitely is offensive is the way Ritchie-Hook refers to the head as his ‘coconut’ and so does everyone else concerned during the incident’s repercussions.

The repercussions are that Ritchie-Hooke has gone too far this time and is recalled to London for a bollocking and possibly the end of his military career. Guy was only obeying direct orders but finds himself also condemned to have a black mark against him.

Freetown

Having abandoned the attack on Dakar the allied fleet sails on to Freetown, the port capital of Sierra Leone (a British colony which remained secure during the war). Damaged ships turn back. The two ships carrying the Halberdiers dock and they go ashore.

There is a new brigadier. He calls Guy in, tells him that during the journey he was promoted captain but that, in light of his involvement in the Dakar fiasco, he has been demoted again. He is to be recalled to London. He will be flown there along with Ritchie-Hooke as soon as the latter is fit enough to travel.

Here in Freetown he makes his second mistake. Apthorpe took the opportunity of leave to go up country. Now word comes back that he is ill. In fact he has been brought back by native bearers in a Victorian style ‘sheeted hammock’ and deposited in hospital.

The brigade major gives Guy permission to visit Apthorpe and recommends he take a bottle of whiskey along, it’s always a nice gesture, though strictly speaking advised against. Guy does so and has a long rambling encounter with Apthorpe who is genuinely ill. Guy slips the whiskey under his bedclothes. A nurse coming in smells it on their breath and says the doctor has forbidden it but Guy lies and says he just gave Apthorpe a nip from his flask.

During this interview Apthorpe, in his comically earnest and tragic way, entrusts Guy with a last wish, which is to ensure that he (Guy) hands over Apthorpe’s legendary pile of kit and equipment to his old friend ‘Chatty’ Corner (who we met earlier in the book when he attended one of the regimental drinks parties). Guy promises and leaves.

A few days later the brigade major calls him in to tell him that Althorpe is dead. Drank the whole bottle of whiskey in a day. Guy is shocked but then more shocked to learn that he is being blamed. The brigade major was the one who suggested the idea, but now holds him responsible.

(Throughout Apthorpe’s dying scenes there is another thread of Waugh’s irrepressible cheeky comedy, which is that Apthorpe solemnly assures him that when he told him, all the way back at the start of the book, that he had two aunts, he was, in fact, fibbing: he only has one. Guy accepts this deathbed confession with a straight face. But this misconception, that Apthorpe had two aunts who will grieve his loss, is then repeated by every other officer and official involved in the case, adding a wonderful thread of humour to counterpoint the rather grim fact of his actual death.

Again, as in the story of the decapitated African, grim death is inextricably intertwined with farce. It is a conscious policy.

So anyway, now Guy has two black marks against him. A flying boat lands in the harbour. It is to take him and Ritchie-Hook back to London and at this point the novel ends.

Cutaway ending

Except that, as Guy flies back to Blighty and an uncertain future, Waugh uses his characteristic technique of cutting away from the protagonist to have him and his plight be discussed by people at some distance from the action who, therefore, treat it with the levity and half attention we all give to gossip about people we half know or have vaguely heard of. It is a home counties version of the Alienation Effect. It is half humorous, half-despairing. It is the way human life is, never really understood, immediately transformed into gossip, all our lives, ultimately, dust. Sarum-Smith and de Souza attend the funeral of Apthorpe, laid to rest in the English cemetery in Freetown, and then remark on the fact that both of the oldest ‘new’ officers, the ones they nicknamed ‘uncle’, have left on the same day (one being buried, the other flying home under a cloud):

‘Both Uncles gone the same day.’
‘Funny, I was thinking the same. I rather preferred Crouchback on the whole.’
‘He seemed a nice enough fellow. I could never quite make him out. Pity he made an ass of himself.’
Already the Second Battalion of the Halberdiers spoke of Guy in the past tense. He had momentarily been of them; now he was an alien; someone in their long and varied past, but forgotten.

The old truth: life is intense tragedy to the person living it, but comedy to everyone else.


Waugh’s worldview

Snobbery

Only members of his class count. The narrator is scornful of anyone outside his circle and its very limited extension into the narrow circle of People Like Us.

The vulgar middle class

Throughout his works Waugh is snooty about people who make a living through trade, shopkeepers, merchants, and what you might call the lower professions, accountants and the like. Thinking about the professions, the very big gap in his oeuvre is the legal profession. If you think about Dickens, his works are full of lawyers and legal cases. None in Waugh. The central profession is, in the 1930s comedies, journalism and, in the novels from Put Out More Flags, the army.

The working classes

The working class is invisible except for servants, publicans, waiters and waitresses (in civilian life) and batmen, valets, servants and drivers (in the army). Oh and the actual soldiers, the common soldier, the private. Almost none of these are mentioned and none are named. When Guy takes his little troupe ashore at Dakar the sergeant has a name but none of the men. They are anonymous extras.

But what interests me is not Waugh’s snobbish, privileged, entitled elitism, as such. It’s more to do with the way that, operating within this closed, super-narrow, elite worldview – the upper class, private school and Oxbridge, country house and the-old-regiment kind of world, bolstered by the exclusiveness and elitism of his upper-class Catholic faith – enables his discourse, allows the texts to be written. A writer can’t write about the entire world; you have to pick a subject. Waugh isn’t trying to describe the great shambling chaos of the modern world. His bright, alert, highly regimented, policed and orderly world is the unshakeable foundation which allows him to create these comic, satirical and, occasionally, devastating fictions.

The elitism is as much a genre as a worldview, with its own customs and conventions. If, for the purpose of reading and enjoying his books, you accept this worldview, then the interest moves on from anatomising the worldview itself, to enjoying the way Waugh subverts, bends and occasionally breaks it.

Private schools and prep schools

Authors of his generation just can’t get away from memories of their childhood prep schools and boyhood private schools. They make endless comparisons to them, something reminds them of this or that at prep or public school, somehow prep schools are always cropping up as actual items: thus the location of training in Southsea is a requisitioned prep school and Mr Crouchback finds a private school evacuating to near his hotel and is invited to become a teacher, a Classics teacher, of course. I wasn’t at all surprised when (in the third book in the trilogy) de Souza tells Guy:

‘All army courses are like prep schools–all that welcoming of the new boys.’ (Unconditional Surrender, page 97)

It’s the first point of comparison for all these privately educated men.

Mental illness

I’ve mentioned it repeatedly in my reviews of Waugh’s novels, but a surprising number of them feature characters or passages dealing with mental illness or mental breakdown. Thus the nervous collapse of Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies, the teetering on the brink of shocked breakdown of Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, the decline into depressed alcoholism of former High Society doyenne Angela Lyne in Put Out More Flags, the mental collapse of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, not one but two suicides in The Loved One. Several of his short stories are about homicidal lunatics (Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing and The Sympathetic Passenger).

In the trilogy Waugh continues his interest in several ways, at several levels. Guy’s elder brother, Ivo, has a complete collapse into psychosis and starves himself to death. Guy himself has been down enough to qualify as depressed and there are plenty of descriptions of his sense of hollowness, emptiness and futility:

He [was] himself destitute, possessed of nothing save a few dry grains of faith.

His brother-in-law, Box-Bender, frankly expects Guy to go mad at any moment, like his older brother, which doesn’t help. And then there’s something odd, ‘rum’, about the central figure, Apthorpe, mounting in eccentricity all the way through to his final collapse.

It feels like madness is constantly lurking just around the corner in any Waugh text. For the most part Waugh manages to keep the lid on it, contain it, and express it in socially acceptable form as a sense of the ludicrous or the farcical. But sometimes, pop! madness or despair emerge into the open.

Influence of film

1. As I’ve pointed out in other reviews, the film technique of quick cutting between scenes is something Waugh absorbed and used to great effect, most notably in an early novel like Vile Bodies but more subtly throughout all his fictions. He is still using it liberally throughout the trilogy, which often features sequences of 2 or 3-page scenes, moving quickly from one setting to another.

2. At moments, like so many of us, like so many characters in twentieth century fiction, Guy compares his behaviour to what people would do in a film and finds himself failing to live up to the Hollywood ideal of dashing masculinity.

3. And then, sometimes, he just takes the mickey out of movies, very amusingly:

Once Guy saw a film of the Rising of ’45. Prince Charles and his intimates stood on a mound of heather, making a sad little group, dressed as though for the Caledonian Ball, looking, indeed, precisely as though they were a party of despairing revellers mustered in the outer suburbs to meet a friend with a motor-car who had not turned up.

An awful moment came when the sun touched the horizon behind them. The Prince bowed his head, sheathed his claymore and said in rich Milwaukee accents: ‘I guess it’s all off, Mackingtosh.’

Influence of books

The comparing oneself with cultural ideals comes over more clearly in his comparisons with popular fiction. Early on in the book Guy recalls a story of derring-do he was read at prep school (naturally) during the Great War, and which inspired him and his friends with images of dashing heroism. The memory comes when the Brigadier addresses the men:

‘Gentlemen,’ he began, ‘to-morrow you meet the men you will lead in battle.’

It was the old, potent spell, big magic. Those two phrases, ‘the officers who will command you…’, ‘the men you will lead…’ set the junior officers precisely in their place, in the heart of the battle. For Guy they set swinging all the chimes of his boyhood’s reading…

‘…”I’ve chosen your squadron for the task, Truslove.” “Thank you, sir. What are our chances of getting through?” “It can be done, Truslove, or I shouldn’t be sending you. If anyone can do it, you can. And I can tell you this, my boy, I’d give all my seniority and all these bits of ribbon on my chest to be with you. But my duty lies here with the Regiment. Good luck to you, my boy. You’ll need it”…’

The words came back to him from a summer Sunday evening at his preparatory school, in the headmaster’s drawing-room, the three top forms sitting about on the floor, some in a dream of home, others – Guy among them – spell-bound.

This passage explains much, about ideals and identity and the centrality of his bloody private school in both of them. But it also, on a comic level, gives rise to a recurring trope which is when Guy finds himself in a tight corner and wonders what this ‘Truslove’ character from his boyhood stories would have done in his place. Thus he refers, later on, to an officer volunteering for a mission ‘Truslove style’, and ironically nicknames the farcical episode on the beach of Dakar ‘Operation Truslove’.

It is a variation on the deep central issue I’ve mentioned above, of the way so many men – well, writers, anyway – of this generation, never escaped their public school manners, morals and essentially immature, schoolboy worldview.


Credit

Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1952. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth (1982)

This is a collection of ten short stories. No first publication dates are given, which is a shame because it would be interesting to know which are from the late 1970s (or even the late 1960s) and because so many are quite different in tone from his book-length thrillers, in that so many of them are, unexpectedly, comedies.

The stories

1. No Comebacks (29 pages) Mark Sanderson is a rich property developer with all the trappings of a playboy millionaire lifestyle – apartments in New York, south of France, sports car, yacht, endless dolly birds. At a party he meets a stunningly beautiful woman (we never get her name) who resists his charms. He becomes infatuated. She says she can’t divorce her weedy bird-spotting husband back in Spain (Major Archie Summers) because he needs her (which rather prompts the question, What is she doing swanning round cocktail parties in London? but never mind).

So, possibly over-reacting a tad, Sanderson hires a hitman (Calvi) to kill the weedy husband. This, the core of the text, is an interestingly detailed and precise account of how to contact the kind of foreign mercenary you’d need for the job and then how the hitman goes about planning and organising the hit – especially the methodology of smuggling a firearm from France into Spain. (There is a long description of how to glue together a book’s pages, then carve a hole in the centre, then insert a plastic mould to contain the disassembled sections of a gun.)

In this, heavily procedural, respect it is an offshoot of Forsyth’s massive ‘novel’, The Dogs of War – itself more like a 400-page manual on how to hire mercenaries to mount a coup in an African country than a traditional novel. Forsyth’s descriptions of organisations, procedures and hardware are always compelling.

A silencer on an automatic is never truly quiet, despite the efforts of the sound-effects men in television thrillers to pretend it is. Automatics, unlike revolvers, do not have a closed breech. As the bullet leaves the barrel the automatic’s jacket is forced backwards to expel the spent cartridge and inject a fresh one. That is why they are called automatics. But in that split second as the breech opens to expel the used shell, half the noise of the explosion comes out through the open breech, making a silencer on the end of the barrel only 50 per cent effective. (p.31)

Everything is planned down to the last detail, including the detail that the beautiful woman had told Sanderson that she goes swimming & sunbathing every afternoon between 3 and 4. The twist is that, on the day the assassin arrives at the isolated villa in Spain, a freak rainstorm breaks out. Calvi shoots the weedy husband alright but – as he tells Sanderson back in London as the latter is handing over the cash for the job – unfortunately, some bird caught him at it. Rather a good looking lady, too. But don’t worry. He shot her, too. ‘There’ll be no comebacks!’

So the hitman killed the woman his client hired him to free from her husband. Irony.

2. There are no snakes in Ireland (31 pages) Harkishan Ram Lal is a medical student from the Punjab studying at the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast. He takes a vacation job with a cash-in-hand bunch of ‘demolition experts’ who are being paid to knock down an old brewery by an unscrupulous property developer. The enormous, rough foreman of the group, Big Billie Cameron, relentlessly bullies Harkishan, not just calling him ‘darkie’ and ‘nigger’, but giving him all the dangerous jobs (such as perching on collapsing walls etc). When Harkishan rebels, Billie attacks him, knocking the student to the ground. The others in the gang, sympathetic but scared of the bully, tell him to stay down…

So that evening Harkishan sets up a little shrine in his Belfast flat to the goddess Shakti and prays for guidance, and the drizzling rain on the windowpane leads his eye to the corner of the room where the belt of his dressing gown lies huddled in the shape of… a snake!

Aha. So now – and this is a classic example of the preposterousness of the stories – Harkishan goes to a Sikh he knows, borrows the money for an air fare, flies to Bombay, and takes a taxi to ‘Mr Chatterjee’s Tropical Fish and Reptile Emporium’, where he buys the most venomous snake available – Echis carinatus, the saw-scaled viper – slips it inside a cigar box with airholes cut into it, which he wraps in towels and puts in his luggage, which he has loaded into the return flight to Dublin, collects it all innocently from the baggage carousel at Dublin airport, strolls through Customs and returns to his cheap digs. First part of the mission accomplished!

Here he transfers the snake to a coffee jar and returns the next day to the building site. When asked to get something by Big Billie, Harkishan surreptitiously empties the snake into the pocket of Billie’s jacket, which the big man has hung up as usual on a nail in a wall apart from the main demolition site.

Then Harkishan waits anxiously for lunch break to come round, for he has noticed that Billie always puts his hand in his pocket to get his tobacco. Harkishan watches surreptitiously, waiting, expecting the big man to be bitten. But lunchtime comes and Big Billie rummages around in his jacket pocket and fills his pipe with impunity. Harkishan, on tenterhooks, sees a wiggling in the fabric and realises the snake has escaped and is loose in the lining of the jacket! Damn!

There follow a tense 48 hours as Harkishan trails Billie back to his cheap terrace house and agonises that his wife or children might be bitten and killed by the snake. Instead, the family find it as it slithers across the kitchen floor one mealtime and, more by luck than judgement, pick it up in a pair of oven gloves and pop it in a jar. None of them realise it is a snake; after all, everyone knows ‘there are no snakes in Ireland’. Billie’s son, a bright schoolboy, says it must be a harmless slow-worm.

Billie decides to play a cruel joke on Harkishan by taking it to work and slipping it into the ‘darkie’s’ sandwich box. And so, the next Monday, when Harkishan opens his sandwich box and sees the snake Billie has slipped into it, he jumps out of his skin, throwing the whole lot across the waste ground where the crew are eating.

Harkishan hysterically insists that it is a real, deadly poisonous snake, but none of the navvies listen to the crazy ‘darkie’, and Big Billie laughs till he cries, leaning back in the grass as he finishes his lunch and puffs his pipe. He doesn’t pay attention to the two scratches on his wrist he seems to have picked up over lunch – what’s a few more among so many scratches, cuts and grazes? And so an hour or so later he collapses of a massive haemorrhage brought on by the bite of the saw-scaled viper! Harkishan’s revenge has been achieved. Everyone thinks it was hard work on a hot day and then maybe the laughing fit brought on by Harkishan’s terror. A fitting misunderstanding.

There follows an odd epilogue, a scene of peculiar veracity, for the bully boy Big Billie turns out to have been a member of the illegal paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Very hard men from this organisation insist on knowing whether there was foul play and so force the authorities to hold a second, in-depth post-mortem and inquest to decisively ascertain the cause of death – which I thought Forsyth might use to somehow implicate Harkishan, who would then come to a very sticky end at the hands of the UVF.

But it doesn’t. He has got away with, effectively, murder – scot free – and reassures himself with the thought that the snake, having no mate, will live eventually die and his secret will be safe forever.

But in the final paragraph, Forsyth introduces a final ironic twist, as he reveals that the snake is in fact a female, was in fact pregnant when Harkishan illegally imported it – and has made itself a nice snug hole near the demolition site in which it is even now laying no fewer than twelve eggs!

Comment

The story is an extremely uneven mix of content and styles: there is the gritty realism of the hard men and their tough banter on a building site, a compelling description of impoverished family life on a Belfast council estate – and over the whole tale blows the chill wind of the Troubles, with the appearance of the UVF hard men.

And yet the core storyline of the Punjabi immigrant who flies back to his homeland to collect a poisonous snake at the suggestion of his god, could come from the Arabian Nights or Kipling or any collection of children’s fairy stories. And then the final vision of the snake multiplying and, in effect, repopulating Ireland with a new species of highly poisonous snake, has the ominous threat I associate with many a science fiction short story.

3. The Emperor (47 pages) A timid bank manager, Mr Murgatroyd, wins a competition held by his bank (the Midland) and, along with lucky winners from other branches, goes on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday to Mauritius. His wife Edna accompanies him, a fat, pink-fleshed, blue-rinsed, nagging monster. Despite her constant abuse, Murgatroyd begins to unwind and enjoy the warm weather, the swimming in the warm sea, the young people in their gaily coloured outfits.

A few days into the week, he is buttonholed by a colleague who says a group of Americans who’ve paid for a deep sea fishing trip have pulled out and it’s on offer at half price. Eventually, ‘Murgatroyd from the Midland’ is persuaded to go.

The tone then significantly changes as Forsyth goes into technical mode, describing in clear, effective prose the whole process of going game fishing in a hired boat – from a description of the battered boat, through the wizened old captain, ‘Monsieur Patient’, who’s done this all his life, his grandson Jean-Paul who is the ship’s boy, and the lean South African, Andre Kilian, who is along to coach Murgatroyd and his colleague.

The description of the successive catches and hauling in of fairly small fish is told with documentary accuracy, typically thorough Forsyth and very enjoyable for readers who like factual accounts of technical processes. But these pages are just the prelude to the core of the story, which is that Murgatroyd, by complete luck, hooks a notorious marlin known to all the local fisherman, the twenty-foot-long monster they call ‘The Emperor’.

There then follows an extremely compelling description of the gruelling endurance test as Murgatroyd, strapped into the ‘fighting chair’, expends every ounce of his strength for seven and a half hours, becoming badly sunburned, his hands developing blisters which burst then bleed, his lips cracking and bleeding, tearing muscles in his shoulder, wringing himself to the uttermost, as he wrestles and reels in the monster on the end of the line.

Finally, as the marlin gives up and allows itself to be reeled in, Murgatroyd, barely capable of walking, frees himself from the ‘fighting chair’, collapses forward onto the stern where the South African and the boy are handling the metal rods caught in the marlin’s mouth, with a view to tying him to the boat before they head back to the harbour – Murgatroyd leans over them and, with a pair of wire cutters, cuts the fish free, to make a last bound on the wave and disappear into the depths.

There is an immense power in Forsyth’s description of the struggle, and a clichéd but effective dignity in the action of this modest suburban man thrown into a completely unexpected situation, who rises to it with unexpected strength and dignity.

Unfortunately, Forsyth has a way of embedding even his most powerful sequences in crass and bathetic plots.

And so, after the boat has docked and the South African taken Murgatroyd to the local hospital where he is covered in anti-burn cream, his hands bandaged, his shoulder put in a sling and generally fixed up after his ordeal – Murgatroyd returns to the hotel to find the story of his exploit has preceded him and he is greeted like a hero, cheered by the crowd of holidaymakers all the way to the steps to his apartment.

And this is where he is confronted by his disapproving gorgon of a wife, the fearful Edna. She launches into a tirade, telling him how cross she is that he disappeared without a by-your-leave etc, when he cuts right across her and, for the first time in his life, tells her to SHUT UP. And not only to shut up, but that he is divorcing her, she can go and live with her sister in Bognor as she always says she wants to, she can have the house and car – he is going to cash in his investments and life insurance policy and stay in Mauritius, buying the boat, learning the trade, and himself becoming a deep sea fishing instructor.

Cheers from the surrounding crowd.

Comment

The stereotype of ‘the mouse who roars’, the timid official who finally stands up to his nagging wife, strikes me as dating from seaside postcards of the 1930s or back to Victorian times. The nagging wives in these stories remind me of Sibyl in Fawlty Towers. And yet the description of being out at sea, of the roll of the boat and the green walls of the high waves, is totally compelling and the long account of man against fish is obviously reminiscent of Hemingway’s late masterpiece on the subject, The Old Man And The Sea.

This is the contradiction at the heart of Forsyth’s fiction, between the utterly compelling handling of physical or technical, procedural or weaponry subjects – and the crass, flat-footed handling of character and psychology.

4. There Are Some Days… (23 pages) Innocent long distance truck driver Liam Clarke arrives in Dublin from France and his articulated lorry promptly springs a bad oil leak in the Customs Shed, delaying him by 24 hours while his company send an engineer to fix it.

The next day, soon after the next day’s ferry has docked, he drives out of the Customs Shed, a bit irritated, but the company paid for him to put up at a B&B, so no harm really done. What he doesn’t know is that a criminal gang was lying in wait for a lorry from the same haulage company to arrive on this, the next day’s, ferry. They have been tipped off that this lorry will be carrying 9,000 bottles of French brandy which they are planning to sell to a gang from the North of Ireland for a tidy profit.

So the gang of small-time criminals, led by scrap dealer and seller of dodgy second-hand cars, Murphy, proceed to dress up as traffic cops and pull over and kidnap Liam and his lorry. They drive it to a rendezvous with a gang of scary crims from ‘the North’, but when they open the trailer, instead of lucrative bottles of brandy they find packs of fertiliser. The Northern gangsters take one look and are not amused at all. They all turn on the poor Clarke who, once they’ve taken his gag off, explains the mistake ie they shanghaied the wrong lorry. the tough Northerners leave the hapless Murphy stammering and stuttering. Fortunately, they don’t kill or even hurt him and his colleagues, just disappear off into the night.

Murphy now drives the lorry up into the hills with a view to abandoning it, but – it just isn’t his day – accidentally crashes into a tractor coming the other way in the dark. The police arrive on the scene before he can flee and, when they examine some of the bags of fertiliser which have tumbled out of the trailer – discover the snouts of a bazooka and machine guns poking out of the bags. Aha.

In a flash Murphy, who has by now emerged as the bumbling lead in what has turned out to be a broadly comic tale, realises the truck driver Liam – probably in all innocence – had been carrying this consignment of weapons for the IRA in the North.

Now, through the concatenation of accidents, it would look very much to the IRA as if he, Murphy, had hijacked their arms shipment. It is unlikely he would survive the ‘questions’ they would ask. All things considered, Murphy realises it might be better to plead guilty to arms smuggling and get to spend some time in the relative safety of prison.

Comment

This story typifies Forsyth’s sense of humour. Ultimately, it is meant to be a comedy, but the comedy depends on you accepting as a premise an underworld of tough criminals, armed gangs and terrorists, and the possibility that cock-ups among these groups can be wryly amusing.

5. Money with Menaces (24 pages) Mr Samuel Nutkin is a timid insurance broker who catches the 8.31 from Edenbridge to Charing Cross every day, sitting in the same carriage opposite the same commuters doing the same crosswords. One day he finds a magazine stuffed under his seat which advertises the services of, ahem, women of ill repute. Now, Mr Nutkin’s wife (Lettice) has been bedbound for a decade and never gave him much physical pleasure anyway. Taking a big risk he writes to one of women advertised – ‘Sally’ – and receives a letter back a few days later, inviting him to come to her flat in Paddington. So a few days later he goes, with the requisite £20 in cash. She invites him to hang up his jacket and remove his other clothes and accompany her into the bedroom.

A few days later he receives a large format letter containing photos of himself and Sally in the act. Horrified, he then gets a phone call from a threatening man who gives no name, and realises he is being blackmailed. He must bring a package containing £1,000 cash to Battersea Park on a certain day at a certain time.

So far so expected – but then the story takes a twist, as timid Mr Nutkin goes on an extended shopping trip, buying a battery, fertiliser, copper wire and so on. Hmmm. He assembles and wraps up his package, then takes it to the rendezvous in Battersea Park, where a masked man on a motorbike relieves him of it quickly. Ho hum.

Some days later a policeman, Detective Sergeant Smiley of the Criminal Investigation Department comes knocking at Mr Nutkin’s house. He tells Mr N that his name and address were found at the flat of a couple who were obviously luring men to sleep with ‘Sally; and then blackmailing their ‘customers’. His was just one out of hundreds of names, addresses and photos they found: had he received a threat of blackmail?

Nutkin perfectly feigns horror and embarrassment and shame and says, No, nothing – oh how horrible! Smiley is completely deceived, but reassures him he won’t be getting any blackmail threats now, for the couple have met a sticky end. ‘Oh how dreadful,’ Mr N gasps.

After the policeman has left, Nutkin dusts off a photograph in its old frame. It shows himself and a colleague from the war, when they worked for the Royal Army Engineers and made up one of the most successful bomb disposal teams in the country. Ha! Amateurs.

Comment

The whole thing reminds me of umpteen Monty Python sketches about the timid commuter with his bowler hat (‘Are you a man or a mouse, Arther Pewty?’). The fear of ‘respectability’ and the furtive shame about sex strongly brings back the twitching curtains of the 1970s, when English people seemed obsessed by, but unable to even mention, this terrible awful thing, ‘sex’. And the sudden ironic reversal at the end of the story looks forward to other unexpected reversals in Forsyth, specifically when timid or non-descript men turn out to have a powerful and violent Army past – notably the twist in the tail of The Veteran, from 20 years later which, despite myself, I found myself liking.

6. Used in Evidence (39 pages) Dublin, the Mayo Road along the side of what used to be a huge slum called the Gloucester Diamond. All the squalid terraces have been razed to the ground and the inhabitants shunted off to new high-rise hutches in the sky. Only one old geezer remains in his squalid slum, refusing to leave. Finally, the rainy morning comes when the police, local authority, council, social workers and wrecking crew assemble with final permission to evict Mr Herbert James Larkin from his home and demolish it.

As usual, when it’s anything to do with officialdom, Forsyth is formidably knowledgeable about every rank of every one of the numerous organisations and companies involved (the demolition crew tasked with knocking the house down, the removal men who will cart the wreckage away, the builders who’re commissioned to cover the area in tarmac to create a shiny new municipal car park).

Supervising it all is Forsyth’s hero, Chief Superintendent William J. Hanley. Hanley is, of course, a gentle giant with a heart of gold. He was ‘the best lock forward to ever come out of Athlone County’ and part of the best rugby team the country ever produced. He is precisely the kind of solid, experienced, by-the-book official that Forsyth reverences in story after story.

Hanley shepherds the bewildered old man off to a local caff and pays for him to have probably the first hot meal in months.

But then this mundane event is transformed when the demolishers find the body of a woman stuffed into a space behind the fireplace. Suddenly it becomes a murder enquiry and Forsyth launches into another detailed account of all the personnel and procedures who are now called into action (forensic police, coroner, more police to cordon the area, murder squad, and so on).

To cut a longish story short, every conceivable police procedure is followed and described, which turn up the anomalous facts that Larkin’s young, vivacious wife disappeared sometime in 1963, after a series of rows about her flirting with other men. Hanley thinks he’s got a cut and dried murder on his hands – until the forensic scientist comes through with the strange news that the corpse discovered in the building died during the 39-45 war. Can’t have been done by Larkin who was, in any case, out of the country, a prisoner of war of the Germans.

Hanley, puzzled, releases Larkin – who still hasn’t said a word and who wanders back to the site of his now-demolished house, where he sees the tarmac contractors squabbling about a broad slab of concrete they’ve discovered in the foundations. When the contractors fail to break or move it and just go ahead and pour tarmac over it, Larkin turns from the building site, and for the first time has an expression on his face – he is smiling with relief.

The implication being that he did murder and bury his wife in the house – but the body they found was his predecessor’s murdered wife. A gruesome sense of humour.

7. Privilege (26 pages) Bill Chadwick is a small businessman. He’s awoken by a neighbour phoning to see if he’s seen the article about him in the Sunday paper. Turns out the article, in the Business section, strongly implies he was in league with a company of crooks which went out of business. Chadwick is livid since it is a complete falsehood. He writes to the paper, tries to see the editor to present his case, but is fobbed off. Then goes to visit a solicitor and here begins a lengthy explanation and critique of the libel laws of England, hopelessly skewed towards the rich and powerful, and how extremely unfair they are to the ordinary punter who is defamed by a newspaper.

Chadwick goes to research the law himself and comes up with a humorous solution. He tracks down the author of the article (Gaylord Brent) in his nice house with a nice wife in a nice part of Hampstead – knocks on the door and biffs him on the nose. Then he finds the nearest police constable and turns himself in, insisting at the police station that a crime has been committed and insisting he is charged.

So Chadwick is charged with common assault and pleads not guilty to ensure that Brent must attend the resulting court case, along with a prosecuting council. He then phones the editors of every national and local newspaper in London, suggesting they send a journalist to the court for an entertaining session.

And then he uses the law of privilege (which is that a witness may not be charged with libel or defamation for anything he says in open court) to mount a stinging attack on Brent in front of the massed ranks of his colleagues – calling him a drunk who listens to bar room gossip instead of doing his research, and so on. When Brent tries to interrupt proceedings the magistrate threatens to have him thrown out. After Chadwick has quite finished his character assassination – to the glee of all Brent’s rival scribes who have scribbled it all down – he is fined £100 with £50 costs by a now-sympathetic magistrate. Well worth it.

Outside the court Brent comes up to him and says, ‘You can’t call another man things like that.’ ‘Why not?’ said Chadwick mildly, ‘You did.’ (p.235)

Comment It is another comedy story, and another story on one of Forsyth’s favourite themes, poetic justice, administered with childish glee.

8. Duty (19 pages) This is only story told in the first person; all the others are told in Forsyth’s robust journalistic third-person voice.

It is narrated by an Irishman who tells the story of a cheap holiday in France he took in a beaten-up car with his girlfriend Bernadette, in the early 1950s. Somewhere in the unspoilt Dordogne the car breaks down and a friendly parish priest a) says he’ll get the garagiste out the next morning to look at the car b) recommends they put up for the night at the farm of a friendly old farming couple, and arranges a lift to the farmhouse.

The plump farmer’s wife makes them lovely potato soup and then the farmer enters the kitchen, a giant of a man who is amazingly slow. Very slowly indeed it emerges that he is not French but Welsh, was badly wounded in the Battle of the Marne in the Great War, and fell in love with the pretty nurse who looked after him – and here they are.

He then goes on to reveal that he was stationed in Ireland during the early part of the war, in fact in Dublin. And then the whole atmosphere changes abruptly, when the giant goes on to say that he took part in an execution firing squad.

The narrator feels his girlfriend stiffen and grow tense – her uncle and brother both died in the civil war and in the Troubles since. Coldly and quietly Bernadette asks if the giant can remember who it was he helped to execute, but the big man can’t remember.

Eventually the meal is over and it is obviously bedtime. The narrator and Bernadette go to bed troubled. The next morning, as they are leaving in their car which has been fixed and delivered to them at the farmhouse, the big strong slow farmer comes running up with a smile on his face – he’s remembered who he executed. Some poet called Pearse! [This was Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the Easter 1916 Irish Rising against British rule which led, eventually to Irish independence ie a really famous Irish patriot, hero of the independence movement, and martyr to the detested British authorities.]

The giant is upset when his hard work in remembering the name doesn’t trigger the gratitude he was expecting. As the couple drive off, Bernadette remarks that the giant is a brute, a beast, a swine. No, says our narrator sagely: just a soldier doing his duty.

Comment This story didn’t work for me, perhaps because it is trying to be genuinely moving and tragic, whereas almost all the others are played for laughs. As any reader of his books knows, Forsyth has a highly developed sense of the honour and dignity of soldiers and policemen and along with that goes a respect for soldiers on both side of any conflict, professional men doing a professional job. I think this story of duty performed by an ‘enemy’ is meant to evoke the tragedy and pity of all conflicts, but it doesn’t have the depth to do it for me.

What most sticks out is how many of these stories are set in Ireland. Why? Does Forsyth have family roots there?

9. A Careful Man (37 pages) Timothy Hanson is another multi-millionaire, like Mark Sanderson in the first story. His doctor tells him he has incurable bowel cancer and 6 months to live. It is repeated several times that he is ‘a very careful man’. Now he makes elaborate – very elaborate – plans for his death and his will.

It is another comedy, like so many comedies surrounding rich men’s wills. Briefly, Hanson dislikes his sister and brother-in-law and their spoilt son, Tarquin. He stipulates in his will that he must be buried at sea in a lead casket which he has had manufactured specially. So on a blustery day they all take a trawler from Brixham which heads into the depths of the English Channel and tips his casket overboard.

Only then is the solicitor allowed to begin searching for Hanson’s money and discovers all his assets were liquidated in the last few months of his life and converted to cash. The family hire a private detective who tracks down the evidence to show that Hanson spent all the ready cash from his assets on platinum, which he converted – in a workshop built at his Kent mansion – into a casket of great weight… at which point the sister and brother-in-law and awful son realise the dreadful truth burst out shouting and wailing — the sadistic so-and-so made them throw his fortune away: the casket they tipped into the sea wasn’t made of lead but of rare and valuable platinum! To the value of over £3 million! Hanson’s solicitor, who has taken a strong dislike to the greedy sister and her family, stifles a grin.

But in fact there is a further twist: for, the text goes on to explain, unbeknown to investigator, solicitor or sister, Hanson had not had his casket made from platinum; he only made it look that way in order to punish his sister.

In fact Hanson spirited the cash into a bank account in the Channel Islands. And now an incident from the very start of the story becomes relevant. Just after he’d been given the news he was going to die, Hanson had been riding in his chauffeur-driven car to his stately home in Kent, passing along the Old Kent Road in shabby south-east London. A crocodile of schoolkids from a Catholic school for orphans happen to cross in front of the car which comes to a halt, and one naughty boy thumbs his nose at Hanson. To his own surprise the silver-haired tycoon finds himself thumbing his own nose right back at the grubby child – and they both burst out laughing.

Now a banker from the Channel islands arrives with a tax-free charitable donation of over £3 million at that very same orphanage, giving the Mother Superior in charge the biggest shock of her life! Hanson has managed to both drive his sister distraught with grief and anger, and give all his money to help orphan children. He really was ‘a most careful man’.

Another example of Forsyth’s central theme – poetic justice trumps the dead hand of laws and empty obligations.

10. Sharp Practice (24 pages) It is 1938 and we are on the slow train from Dublin to Tralee. In a nice quiet compartment is sitting Judge Comyn hoping to do some work, but into it comes first a short, nervous, wispy-haired man and then at the last moment, as the train is pulling out, a breathless priest. To cut a long story short the other two are confidence tricksters who inveigle the judge into getting involved in a game of poker in which he ends up losing £50. Next day he sits in the Assizes and is surprised then not so surprised to see the very same wispy-haired man brought before him, charged with carrying out just such a card-based confidence trick on another passenger on another train.

Why are so many of these stories set in Ireland, and historic Ireland at that? And who’d have guessed the author of the sensationally gripping thriller, The Day of The Jackal would turn out in his spare time, as it were, to be the author of humorous short stories.


Stories for children

These are almost stories for children. The ‘psychology’ is naive and bathetic. It is like watching old Morecambe and Wise or Two Ronnies sketches – funny maybe, but predictable, and from a simpler world, a world free from adult nuance or complexity, a world of stereotypes – the heartless millionaire, the cruel assassin, the timid bank manager with his nagging wife, the timid insurance broker with his nagging wife, the lean, tanned manly South African guide, the sturdy, unflappable, six-foot Irish copper, and so on and so on.

Every character is like a stereotype from a sketch. This doesn’t stop them being enjoyable. Just don’t expect any depth.

Stories from the 1970s

The shallow effect may partly be because the stories are so dated. Neither the paperback edition I’m reading nor the Wikipedia article about the collection give dates of publication for individual stories, but it’s a fair bet that most of them were written in the 1970s. Thus the hen-pecked husband stereotype who appears in two of the stories seems a creature from another world, and his nagging, blue-rinse wife in each case like something from Monty Python or a Donald McGill cartoon. Types from the now remote world of the 1970s.

This gives the collection an additional sociological interest, making it a window into a world of lost attitudes and expectations.

Absurd

Many of the stories’ plotlines are laughably absurd. It’s another way in which they’re childish. You have to be prepared to swallow the complete implausibility of the events, to enjoy the climactic scenes they lead up to.

Technical grip

When Forsyth describes technicalities he’s completely convincing. Thus the hiring of the hitman in the first story reads like a manual on how to do just that. Similarly, the long description of the game fishing in The Emperor is highly detailed and hypnotically absorbing. This is the paradox at the heart of Forsyth’s writing. A lot of the plots are absurd. The characters are paper thin. A lot of the payoffs are cheap and silly. But along the way, there are often sections of clear, intelligent and informative prose which are totally gripping and persuasive.

Lucid prose

His prose style is wonderfully clear and lucid. It is like eating sweets. There is no complexity. Everything is laid out in a crisp, neat style, both the gripping technical descriptions and the lamentably shallow psychology. Which makes these stories, like the novels, ideal pool-side reads for holiday makers dazed by the sun and too relaxed to read anything demanding.


Credit

No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth was published by Hutchinson Books in 1982. All quotes are from the 2011 Arrow paperback edition.

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots – but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At the age of 76 Forsyth wrote his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what a simple, boyish and hugely entertaining book this is.

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