Goodbye, Mr Chips, James Hilton’s most famous novel, has somehow acquired a reputation for sentimentality and a rose-glow view of the English past, particularly in its public schools, that has done the book few favours. I stand here to tell you that this is not true. Yes, there is sentiment, but it is the sentiment for a time and world that was irrevocably lost in the mud and trenches of World War I, that took the boys who went through the English public school system and fed them through a meat grinder that had no notion of the ideas of honour, valour and playing the game that they had been inculcated with at those public schools. Yet a glance at the rolls of honour of any of the old English public schools will show that those boys played the game to the end, even though, as junior officers, leading their men from the front, they knew that they were deliberately targeted by the enemy. Indeed, the life expectancy for junior officers was the lowest of the lot among the soldiers of the First World War.
This is the story of one of the men who sent them off to war, who made them into the young men they were, made them prepared to lead from the front even though that was tantamount to suicide. Mr Chips, at the end of his life, after his retirment, returns to his old school, which he had never really left, to see it through the Great War, as the roll call of the dead is read out each week and the boys destined for the meat grinder and readied for their own turn upon the wheel. Yes, there is sentiment there, but it’s a true sentiment: a sentiment for what was lost – the ideal of the gentleman – and of what they had done: turned those boys, with all their enthusiasm and courage and hope, into meat for the grinder. Goodbye, Mr Chips is not the story people think it is. Read it for yourself and see.
You might think that the book that gave the world ‘Shangri-La’ would be a rather sentimental tale about the recovery of a lost eden – and even if you, dear reader, did not, I certainly did. But it turns out that Lost Horizon is much complex and layered than that, and Shangri-La itself a much more dangerous and doubtful place. First published in 1933, Lost Horizon shares with much of Hilton’s work an examination of the damage done to me who served in the First World War but coupled to that is a prescient, and rather chilling, sense that the world is rushing towards yet another cataclysmic war – a prediction that would prove all too accurate. Lost Horizon is suffused with this sense of the war fought and the war looming, with only the Tibetan monastery that draws – drags rather – its protagonists into its orbit as a potential refuge against the coming storm. Indeed, there is something about the sense of coming threat that suggests a sense, on the part of the author, of the terrible weapons that saw out World War II and that would hang over us all throughout the Cold War. The story is caught between the trenches and the presentiment of nuclear war, a presentiment all the more remarkable given that such weapons were not even on the drawing board at the time of writing.
But, then, what price eden? That is the question the book poses and which Hilton does not definitively answer. As such, Shangri-La can become that which the reader wants, and from that taking the answer to the question. What price eden? Well, what would you pay?
There have been many, deserved, accolades for Pierre Clostermann’s account of his service as a Free French pilot flying for the RAF during the Second World War. For myself, I just want to say it opened my eyes to something that I had never considered before in reading accounts of the closing year of the war. Scan the histories of the campaigns from the Normandy landings to the fall of Berlin and you’ll see bland statements along the lines that the Allies had complete aerial superiority, that German armour and troop movements had to take place at night to avoid being strafed by marauding Typhoons and Tempests. In comparison to the Battle of Britain or the Bomber offensive, it all sounds pretty straightforward. Turns out, it wasn’t that at all. Clostermann flew through to the end of the war and the struggle he describes, with the Luftwaffe, who were a long way from being completely beaten, and even more with the anti-aircraft batteries that clustered around the targets they were assigned to attack tells a very different, and seldom told, story. How much more difficult to fly into a wall of flak when you know that the war is all but over and the instinct for self-preservation grows ever stronger. That pilots such as Clostermann did so, for precious little praise afterwards, says volumes for their courage and their dedication. I can only stand in awe before their sacrifice and steadfastness.
It’s not like any other flying book you’re likely to read. The Englishman in me is inclined to say that it’s very French, but then I stop myself: I am not English. Nor am I a pilot. But I have looked at the sky, I have flown in dream and watched, wide-eyed though gravity bound, the soar of red kites and the jagged sweeps of swifts. The contraction of flight, of we earth prisoners taking to the sky, to the tedium of modern commuter aviation is one of the greatest crimes against beauty that we have perpetrated in recent decades. Perhaps if planes, instead of the meagre portholes they provide, had windows like the great canopies that the pilots of fighter planes have, or glider pilots, then we would still have the wonder. But instead we look out on the world through a portal that looks like nothing so much as the door of a washing machine: a world of unexpected beauty reduced to a smeary spin cycle.
It’s perhaps just as well that Antone de Saint-Exupery never lived to see flight so reduced. He witnessed, and flew through, the romantic age of flying, opeing up new routes across South America and the Andes in planes that were little more than constructions of wood, wire and cloth. On one occasion, forced to land on a rocky plateau in the Sahara, he walks upon land that no human foot had ever trod before, its only means of access by air. He crashes in the desert, nearly dies, but continues to fly. It seems mad. But it reminds me of a friend of mine from university.
Yossi (his mother was reading Catch-22 during pregnancy) always dreamed of being a journalist. We got to know each other working on the student newspaper, where I also learned his ruthlessness, being roped in as an unwitting accomplice to the coup Yossi launched to unseat the newspaper’s editor. But while he was at university, Yossi caught the climbing bug too, and started dragging me up rock faces. For me, climbing was a retrospective pleasure, one I mainly enjoyed when I was no longer spread eagled on a rock face at an unfeasible height above the ground, but for Yossi it was more than that. Leaving university, Yossi started moving up the journalistic ladder, cutting his teeth at the Birmingham Post, with a move to Fleet Street all but certain. But then he fell off a mountain. Not just any mountain: Mont Blanc. In between writing stories, Yossi, with all the energy that a young man has to command, had been going off climbing and this time he was coming down Mont Blanc with a climbing friend, Mike Clarke, when they fell off.
The story made the press. They fell 3,000 feet down the side of the mountain, bouncing off rocks and snow on the way down, tumbling over crevices – Yossi’s helmet hit a rock so hard it shattered and he took a puncture wound from his ice axe that just missed a major artery – until they came came to a stop at the bottom. They should have been dead. Obviously. People don’t survive that sort of fall. But not only were they both still alive, but they were almost unscathed. Cuts and bruises: not even any broken bones.
Having brushed so close to death, Yossi took stock – and decided to give up his lifelong dream of being a journalist to become a full-time climber. He moved to South America, to Bolivia, working as a mountain guide while opening new routes up some of the least climbed mountains of the world. He was becoming the doyen of South American climbers. But then, towards the end of the climbing season, Yossi and his partner took two Americans up for a final climb. Yossi was roped to one of the clients, Dana Witzel, and his partner had the other. They were aiming for the summit of El Presidente, a 5,700-metre peak. No other mountaineer knew this peak and its surrounds as well as Yossi.
It was a small avalanche. A piddling little affair, a shifting of a few layers of snow. The other two climbers saw it and got to Yossi and Dana within minutes but they were too late. Yossi and Dana were both dead.
Yossi would have understood Antoine de Saint-Exupery perfectly although he would never have written like the Frenchman. But some things make so much of life that should death demand his due, he will be happily paid.
This is the fourth in Chris Durbin’s Carlisle and Holbrooke naval adventures set during the Seven Years War (so half a century before the Napoleonic era milieu of most age-of-sail stories) and the author has really hit his stride. What started off as workmanlike but nautically plausible and engaging stories with likeable characters is in danger of becoming something really quite exceptional through Durbin’s increasing command of the language: he is approaching the sort of bell-like clarity of expression that very few writers achieve. I very much look forward to reading the next in the series.
Sequel to Chase the Morning and perhaps a slight disappointment. A decade or so since the events of the first book, Steven has all but forgotten the way to the Rim, while the girl he went sailing away into the sea of the sky to find has moved on to other things (one of the slight missteps of the book: we have to wait for a hundred pages before we even find out what happened to her). This time, Steven heads off to the east, to Bali, with a consignment called for by his lost love, only to encounter the old gods of Bali where the Rim meets the Spiral. Perhaps Rohan overdoes the prose portraits a little: the book is probably 50 pages longer than it should be and so it comes down a star in my rating.
This might be a relatively venerable work (first published in 1962, which makes it slightly older than me!) but it remains just as relevant – in its fairly specialised area – as ever. Hilda Ellis Davidson was an extraordinarily accomplished scholar, fluent in Old Norse, Latin, German, Russian, Icelandic, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, who was the first to combine literary and historical knowledge with archaeological evidence. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England is a perfect example of this approach, combining a thorough examination of the archaeological evidence at the time with a truly broad investigation of the literary sources. As such, it serves as a model for the best sort of historical investigation and while the archaeology may now have more examples, the literary evidence has not changed and, as a mark of the excellence of her work, Davidson’s book remains relevant, interesting and seminal today. A landmark in Anglo-Saxon studies.
Still funny 131 years after it was first published. There’s not many books you can say that about and, as such, Three Men in a Boat requires no further review (but good to know that a favourite book of my childhood and youth still retains all its charm and humour when I revisited to alleviate some of the cloying, Kafkaesque gloom of repeated lockdowns).
Have you ever felt, with a sense verging on a conviction, that if you just took a different turning or went down another street, that you could simply walk right out of this world? Do you suspect that some among the lost and the disappeared, those who go and never come back, are some who did exactly that? Have you felt the shift of the world’s scenery and thought that, for a moment, you glimpsed the other scenes upon other stages?
I have. I don’t know if Michael Scott Rohan did too, before his death (now, he knows the truth of what he perhaps glimpsed), but Chase the Morning is predicated on just this happening to its hero, Steve, a yuppie shipping agent: the hollow man of the 1980s when greed was good. Steve stumbles out of this world and into another, and then the other world comes after him in this one, and he has no choice but to follow, out of the Core and into the Rim, sailing into the cloud archipelago of the worlds of deep history and deeper imagination that exist in parallel to our own mundane reality. What’s more, the Rim is a world of pirates and adventure and dark magic and mystery. If you get to step out of our world directly into another, Rohan’s would be one of the most adventuresome to visit. It’s a gripping, vivid read, made better by Rohan’s excellent prose and well-written characters, none more so than Steve, the slowly filling hollow-man protagonist.
I wonder where Michael Scott Rohan is wandering now. I hope he has visited the Rim and found there adventure beyond anything he imagined.
Helena is probably Evelyn Waugh’s least regarded novel but it is a personal favourite. In part, that’s because of Waugh’s portrayal of Helena herself, the mother of the future Emperor Constantine, which is one of his most vivid and affecting character studies. But most of all it is for the single finest passage in Waugh’s writing – and there are so many – but Helena’s prayer outmasters them all for it is Waugh’s prayer for the salvation of his own soul. It is the prayer for the learned, the great, those who think they bend history to their will and learn only at the end that history is but another name for divine play. I can do no better than to quote the final part of the prayer here, dear reader. If your heart responds and tears start from your eyes, then this book is a gift from Waugh to the deepest parts of your soul; if you read it simply as words then, pass it by, for it will seem dated and strange and odd.
The passage comes as Helena reflects on the journy of the Magi, the Three Kings, to Bethlehem, following the Star to the birth of a new King.
“You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have had a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.”
“Dear cousins, pray for me,” said Helena, “and for my poor overloaded son. May he, too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly. And pray for Lactantius and Marcias and the young poets of Trèves and for the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.”
“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”