Gerald Sinstadt's Reviews > Eastern Approaches

Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean
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Jan 01, 10

Read in September, 2009

I came to Eastern Approaches by way of a glowing testimonial in Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game (see my review elsewhere). The front cover calls Maclean's memoir "The best book you will read this year" and for once a clever line in a blurb is hard to challenge. Eastern Approaches will linger in the memory for many a year. It was, after all, first published in 1949 and remains in print.

Fitzroy Maclean - later Sir Fitzroy - tells the story of eight years in his life, from 1937 to 1945. It begins with Maclean as a junior diplomat in Paris, then at the epicentre of European upheaval. He breaks with all precedent by applying for a transfer to the supposedly dead end of the British embassy in Moscow. Once there, he becomes a shrewd observer of a Russia in search of identity; meanwhile, on his frequent (and seemingly often overstayed) leaves he explores - by train, bus, clapped-out car and ferry, on horse and camel, and on foot - the terra incognita of Caucasia.

When war is declared in 1939 Maclean wants to become a soldier but diplomatic rules prevent it. He discovers that diplomacy and politics are not allowed to mix, gets himself proposed as a parliamentary candidate and thus forces the Foreign Office to demand his resignation. He is elected Conservative member for Lancaster but before taking his place at Westminster, enrols as a private soldier. Soon promoted as a subaltern, he finds himself in Cairo where the old pals network steers him into the SAS, leading a raid on Benghazi hundreds of miles behind German lines. There is no false glory: the raid, which reads like the script for a wartime movie, is a failure. Lives are lost, survival is always in the balance.

But Montgomery is winning the war in the desert and Maclean needs new adventures. He is parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia as head of an official British military mission to the Partisans led by Tito - this at a time when the British government is actually backing another group of insurgents. A substantial body of Eastern Approaches is taken up by a gripping account of delicate diplomacy (Tito is a convinced communist with Stalin as a natural ally) and military bravado. From time to time Maclean is temporarily lifted out for consultations at the highest levels, military and political (Churchill asks if, when he parachuted into Yugoslavia, he was wearing the kilt), but he returns each time to see the campaign through to its ultimate victory with the fall of Belgrade.

So in eight years, Maclean experienced enough for three lifetimes, enough for three books. As if that were not enough, he writes with fluency and wit, enlivening his story for page after page by pointed anecdotes and evocative recreation of people and places. In short, this is superb story-telling by one who was there in the heart of it.
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