A dramatically compelling narrative paired with magnificent scholarship - a rare treasure. Here's an excerpt, concerning the British Commander-in-Chie...moreA dramatically compelling narrative paired with magnificent scholarship - a rare treasure. Here's an excerpt, concerning the British Commander-in-Chief:
"Kitchener's own sense of isolation at GHQ had reached a climax. Even with his 'band of boys', he found ordinary human contact impossible. Only 'the Brat', Captain Frank Maxwell, VC, his fair-haired young ADC, had found a way to Kitchener's heart, if heart it was. 'He is awfully shy,' the Brat wrote home, describing K. 'He really feels nice things, but to put tongue to them . . . he would rather die.' Exactly what K felt for the Brat will never be known. There was the odd incident when K, who normally detested being photographed, insisted on being taken sitting docilely beside the Brat. (To the Brat's embarrassment, he made a 'vile fuss about my appearance. "Good heavens, your hair's all over the place."') At any rate, the Brat was the apple of K's eye. As a kind of jester at Kitchener's court, he was allowed to take liberties forbidden to senior generals. 'We are now High Commissioner of South Africa,' the Brat wrote home in May, and explained: 'In talking at or to K., we always say "we made a speech", "we drew so much pay", "we are this or that".' Of course, this did not endear the Brat to the rest of the staff ('Poor boy, I fear his brain is not his strong point'), which further appealed to the Chief's oriental sense of humour.
"K had also acquired another pet: perversely, he had insisted on rescuing two baby starlings that had fallen down the chimney of his bedroom at GHQ. One died. He made the GHQ staff, to their intense disgust, put the other in a cage and look after it. Even the Brat's sense of loyalty was strained by this chore - and by the sight of the Chief fussing about worms all day, and chirping at the starling through the wire, and rolling his porcelain-blue eyes at the little beggar, leaving the war to look after itself. In due course, the bird escaped - while the Chief was on a visit to Pietersburg - to the consternation of everyone at GHQ. The Brat was told to draft the telegram to prepare K for this shock. 'C-in-C's humming bird . . . broke cover and took to the open. Diligent search instituted; biped still at large. Mily. Secy. desolate; ADC in tears. Army sympathizes.' On his return, K seemed to take the matter stoically. But he rushed through the accumulation of two days' telegrams, then organized a great drive ('a small army of staff officers, menials and orderlines', grumbled the Brat) to hunt down the missing bird. It was found at 7.00 p.m., having taken refuge in a neighbour's chimney - but not before the Chief himself was covered in mud, 'having repeatedly fallen prone in wet flower-beds'. Earlier, K remarked breathlessly, 'I've never been so fond of that bird as since it's been loose.'" (less)
An old favorite of mine, this is one of the most detailed books I've encountered over the years that describes Christian holidays: both religious cele...moreAn old favorite of mine, this is one of the most detailed books I've encountered over the years that describes Christian holidays: both religious celebrations and folk customs. (less)
This collection of Alistair MacLean's short works ends with a rather sad essay by the author, in which he disavows any intentions to be literary or me...moreThis collection of Alistair MacLean's short works ends with a rather sad essay by the author, in which he disavows any intentions to be literary or meaningful - sad because his first novel, "H.M.S. Ulysses," was in fact both literary and meaningful, and all the more entertaining as a result. Alas, he reports that a couple more of his meaningful novels didn't go over well with the readers. (I suspect that one of them must have been "The Last Frontier," which, for all its virtues, includes long monologues about the benefits of peace between nations.) MacLean concluded from the readers' reactions that "messages are for Western Union," rather than concluding, as he should have, that a skillful writer must make his messages entertaining and must integrate them carefully into the storyline.
Fortunately, Alistair MacLean's disavowal of meaningful content was not applied to many of the works in this collection.
The subtitle "Collected Short Stories" is misleading, because eight of the works in this collection are actually narrative nonfiction on World War II maritime disasters . . . but are no less compellingly written than MacLean's fiction.
When the Hood was with you, nothing could ever go wrong. Every man in the Royal Navy knew that.
And not only in the Navy. It is seventeen years now since the Hood died but none of the millions alive today who had grown up before the Second World War can forget, and will probably never forget, the almost unbelievable hold the Hood had taken on the imaginations and hearts of the British public. She was the best known, best loved ship in all our long naval history, a household name to countless people for whom Revenge and Victory were only words. The biggest, most powerful ship of the line in the inter-war years, she stood for all that was permanent, a synonym for all that was invincible, held in awe, even in veneration. For millions of people she was the Royal Navy, a legend in her own lifetime . . . But a legend grows old.
And now, with the long night's high-speed steaming over, the dawn in the sky and the Bismarck looming up over the horizon, the legend was about to end forever.
In these accounts, MacLean shows himself to be a first-rate nautical history writer, with a fine eye for detail and for the human aspects of the story. I suspect (though I can't verify it, since he usually doesn't cite his sources) that he is also demonstrating his talent for investigative journalism, digging down to find the deeper reasons why the disasters occurred.
The remaining stories include a quietly moving fictionalization of a typical day for minesweeping boats during World War II; a boating melodrama that first won him his fame; and four light comedies, including the wryly witty story, "McCrimmon and the Blue Moonstones."
Shocked into comparative sobriety and hoarsely uttering the war cry of his clan, McCrimmon leapt back. A high-speed camera would have recorded but a blur as his hand streaked for his Stilson wrench. Wild Bill Hickok, at his best, would have stood in silent wonder. Alas for McCrimmon, the miraculous speed of his draw was grievously hampered by the plethora of assorted cutlery in his pocket. True, it caused but a second's delay: but it is a scientifically established fact that a heavy stool, impelled by the arms of an enraged Armenian, can cover a distance of four feet in less than half that time.
But the star of the fictional works in the collection is surely "Rendezvous," a World War II naval espionage tale that begins with as effective a hook as any of MacLean's novel-length thrillers.
It was quite dark now and the Great North Road, the A1, that loneliest of Europe's highways, almost deserted. At rare intervals, a giant British Roadways truck loomed out of the darkness: a courteous dipping of headlamps, immaculate hand-signals, a sudden flash of sound from the labouring diesel - and the A1 was lonelier than ever. Then there was only the soothing hum of tyres, the black ribbon of highway, and the headlights of the Jaguar, weirdly hypnotic, swathing through the blackness.
Loneliness and sleep, sleep and loneliness. The enemies, the co-drivers of the man at the wheel; the one lending that extra half pound of pressure to the accelerator, the other, immobile and ever-watchful, waiting his chance to slide in behind the wheel and take over. I knew them well and I feared them.
But they were not riding with me tonight. There was no room for them. Not with so many passengers. Not with Stella sitting there beside me, Stella of the laughing eyes and sad heart, who had died in a German concentration camp. Not with Nicky, the golden boy, lounging in the back seat, or Passiere, who had never returned to his sun-drenched vineyards in Sisteron. No room for sleep and loneliness? Why, by the time you had crowded in Taffy the engineer, complaining as bitterly as ever and Vice-Admiral Starr and his bushy eyebrows, there was hardly room for myself.
MacLean does such a good job at depicting the shifting fortunes of the characters in "Rendezvous" that one yearns for a theme which is equally memorable - one of those Western Union messages which MacLean deliberately dropped from his later fiction. But the reader can remain grateful that, over the span of his lifetime, MacLean gave us as much as he did. This collection is testimony to that fact.(less)