Writing Portfolio

12.10.13

Biographies of war heroes

My latest post concerns two books that I’ve read over the past few months – both of which happen to be biographies of men who, among other things, were war heroes.

First of all, I’d been looking forward to reading Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper (2012), as the subject is one of my favourite writers – although it is true that his prose is a little too purple for some tastes (I, for example, am glad that I didn’t stumble across him until I was in my late twenties; had I started reading him when I was younger, I don’t think I’d have appreciated it as much). There is much that is of interest in the life of Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011), or ‘Paddy’ as he was universally known. Here, after all, was a man who walked across Europe before he turned twenty, served in the Special Operations Executive during the war (most famously abducting a German general in Crete in 1944), and after it designed his own house in Greece, could sing folk-songs in at least eight languages, mingled with lords as easily as he mingled with vagrants and swam the Hellespont when he was 70. Oh, and he wrote some of the finest works of non-fiction of the twentieth century, specifically his accounts of that youthful walk, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.

There’s no way a biography of him would ever be dull, although there is always the chance that such a work could never live up to the man’s own prose (as was the case with a biography of Norman Lewis that I read last year). But what Artemis Cooper – who knew him well – does is to bring to light his unpublished diaries, allowing us to see the man behind the prose, as it were. Another side to the man comes through; the often-penniless Paddy was quite the freeloader (the original couch-surfer, maybe?) and an habitual womaniser (to the extent that his wife would even give him money in case he needed to visit a brothel). Despite this, Paddy still comes across as a highly likeable sort – a prodigious networker (as a biographer, Cooper is nothing if not a name-dropper), always curious about exploring new places and wanting to learn new things. He was never, ever dull or boring.

A couple of things I’d always wanted to know about Paddy are explained; for example, why, aside from an uncharacteristically staid report for the Imperial War Museum (which can be read in the Paddy-anthology Words of Mercury), Paddy didn’t write his own account of the kidnapping of the general – something he left to his comrade-in-arms, Billy Moss, whose account, Ill Met by Moonlight, was made into a film in which Paddy was portrayed by Dirk Bogarde. The reasons for this lack are explained in detail; Paddy being Paddy, a blood-feud is among them (which also explains why he didn’t return to Crete for many years after the war). The question of why the long-awaited third volume of his youthful journey was never completed is also explained; Paddy was a notorious perfectionist who took ages over his writing, and in this context, perhaps the most revealing thing in the book is the reproduction of a page of one of Paddy’s drafts – written in longhand (for years, and I for one find this rather shocking, he never learned to use a typewriter) and replete with all sorts of corrections and crossings-out, it was used by his long-suffering publisher whenever anyone asked when Paddy’s next book was coming out! Which brings us to Cooper’s next project; along with Colin Thubron, she’s been editing Paddy’s journals, notes and drafts to bring said third volume to publication. The Broken Road has just been published, and is due out in paperback next year. I can’t wait.

As far as I can tell, Paddy did not cross paths with Airey Neave (1916-1979); the latter, whose name I first encountered in Major P.R. Reid’s The Colditz Story, certainly doesn’t crop up in the pages of Cooper’s biography which at the very least mentions in passing a large number of well-known people who Paddy met over the course of his long life. There are a few similarities between the two men; both visited Germany as young men shortly after the Nazis came to power, and both fought in the Second World War with distinction, being awarded the DSO. But there the similarities would appear to end.

This brings me to the second biography, Public Servant, Secret Agent: The Elusive Life and Violent Death of Airey Neave by Paul Routledge (2003). This is an at-times fascinating biography about a relatively minor and now largely forgotten politician, albeit one whose career did not end in failure but was tragically cut short by an INLA car-bomb at the Palace of Westminster in 1979. The most interesting part relates to what he did in the Second World War, and Neave’s war was most certainly adventurous – after being taken prisoner at Calais in 1940, he ended up in Colditz Castle – from which he escaped by dressing up in a home-made imitation of a Wehrmacht officer’s uniform and subsequently travelling to Switzerland – before going on to work for MI9 (the wartime secret service responsible for escape and evasion) and playing a role in the Nuremberg trials. These parts of Routledge’s book are very good indeed.

Sadly, the book flags once we get to Neave’s post-war career as a Conservative MP; to make up for the relative lack of excitement as Neave tries to climb the greasy pole and doesn’t do particularly well, the author tries to make something of Neave retaining his links to the secret services but there’s not much to go on here, and Routledge gets bogged down chasing shadows as he attempts to link Neave to various conspiracy theories about right-wing groups trying to overthrow the Wilson government. Even Neave’s greatest political achievement – his central role in Mrs Thatcher’s campaign in the 1975 Tory leadership election – appears somewhat rushed here (Routledge, I think, overlooks Ted Heath’s failure to engage with his own backbenchers while overplaying Neave’s apparent deviousness). Of Neave’s subsequent career as Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, there isn’t really a lot that can be said, as he was shadowing one of the most effective holders of that office, and did not live to put any of his own policies into action – he was killed days after the vote of no confidence that brought down Jim Callaghan. After the account of Neave’s murder, the conspiracy theories, and there are quite a few relating to who exactly would have wanted him dead, take over again – the effect being that rather too much time is given over to the musings of Ken Livingstone and Enoch Powell.

Much more substantial is the author’s story of how he got to speak to some veteran Irish republican terrorists about the all-too-real conspiracy to murder Neave himself. For sheer guts in his pursuit of this side of the story, Routledge deserves much credit.

To conclude, I’d say that both of these books are worth a read, although both do have a rather limited appeal. The Neave one will probably appeal more to politics-junkies than anyone else, while the Paddy biography is perhaps best tried after a dose of Paddy’s own inimitable prose.

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