THE GUNS FIRE EVERY MINUTE. Under the bare mottled plane trees opposite Cradle Tower the crews of the Honourable Artillery Company serve their 25 pounders in ceremonial drill. We hear orders barked, see the smoke a split second before the explosion. With each report pigeons and gulls take fright, wheeling in scattered confusion over the bridge and the anchored barges and the black and white walls.
It is cold here on the bridge; bitter cold. The wind, like the tide, is coming from the east; coming from the North Sea past Tilbury and Greenwich and Woolwich and Wapping, past the places where the bombs dropped and the crowds shouted “Good Old Winnie” to the man we are waiting for.
Apart from the guns, it is very quiet at the Tower. Officers with swords at their sides walk slowly up and down, glancing often at their watches. It is so quiet that we can hear the water eddying about the pier. Time passes. Time moves, sad and grey with the dun-coloured river. The gulls, more cautious than the pigeons, whirl high above us. Police launches hover in the current. It is half past noon and Winston is on Tower Hill.
And then they come. Down the slope, over the cobbles, under the trees come the pipers, playing their lament. If the pictures are true they will show purple-grey and green and brown, and the black of bearskins, and if the memory is kind it will let us keep this hour for the rest of our years.There is no turning away now, no show of not caring: it is nothing to do with the wind that there are tears in our eyes. Opposite the wharf the Trinity launch drifts, recovers position, edges closer as if in anxiety. The guns are still. The watchers on the bridges are still. Even the current itself, checked at high water, turning, hesitant, joins the rest of this grieving January world.
It is almost over. The bands have stopped, the bosuns’ pipes have shrilled. They have put the man on the afterdeck. It is the water that has him now. Some say that the river route was a matter of convenience, but we prefer not to believe it. We like to suppose that Winston himself would have chosen it. Winston, this Former Naval Person; First Lord of the Admiralty, Elder Brother of Trinity House, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Winston, always a little
comical in his military guises, but never in peaked cap and reefer. Winston on his wartime naval occasions at Spithead and Plymouth and Portsmouth and Dover. Winston on the Prince of Wales. Winston on the Vanguard. Winston on this launch, under that flag.
The Havengore moves. The Trinity House Landward fusses and shifts and takes the lead; then, unannounced, unexpected, the great dockside cranes that have been keeping giant sentinel above the river dip slowly, bow to the procession in a gesture of indescribable eloquence. And then, out of the east, the fighters come; they dive, swoop, roar as if defying the mortality that has claimed what we half believed to be immortal.
Three launches carry Winston towards Westminster. Three swans, sedately, arrogantly, follow them under the bridge.
ON SEPTEMBER 16, 1944, HITLER ANNOUNCED THAT THE WAR COJULD STILL BE WON, and that before the end of the year he would launch an offensive that would drive a wedge between the Americans on the borders of Germany and the British and Canadian armies in Holland and northern Belgium. Having destroyed the latter, and with his “secret weapons” (the “flying bombs”, the V2 rockets and the forthcoming jet aircraft) yet to be fully deployed, he would be able to negotiate peace with Churchill and Roosevelt and devote the whole of Germany’s efforts towards the defeat of Russia.
On 16 December, Code-named ‘Autumn Mist’, the promised offensive was launched by three German armies on the weakest part of the entire Allied front, which was that of the Americans in the Belgian Ardennes, achieving a catastrophic breakthrough. It was the beginning of what came to be known as The Battle of the Bulge. At this time my division, the 53rd Welsh and the regiment of field artillery in which I was a Second Lieutenant, aged twenty, were still ‘resting’ near Antwerp. Four days later, the gravity of the disaster and the strategic threat having been grasped by Eisenhower and the American high command, the northern sector of the ‘bulge’, nearest to Antwerp, was put under British (which is to say General Montgomery’s) command, and an entry in my diary recorded “Slow move south through Malines and Louvain to position on high ground about 20 kms south of Brussels, but no firing. Later, move south again in the dark to position near Waterloo.”
Sometime during the night of 21 December, in a large and picturesque thatched cottage near Maransart, a few miles south of the village of Waterloo, our arrival disturbed Jules Van Paemel, a 55-year old Belgian artist (not until years after the war was I to know how eminent he was), his wife, and their 21-year-old daughter, Denise. The Van Paemels had moved there from Brussels in 1939 and were now awakened by the noise of heavy motor vehicles in the lane that skirted the property, then of their manoeuvring on the partly open ground near the cottage. British voices could be heard, shouting orders. It was the beginning of a novel such as might be written for those famous publishers of romantic fiction, Mills and Boon. In the morning, a young British officer appeared at the cottage, asking where the nearest water supply point might be found. Right there, if only moderate quantities were needed, Madame Van Paemel said. Otherwise, there was a well and a pump in the farmyard a few hundred yards along the lane. The young officer was invited to take coffee. Thus I met the enchanting Denise for the first time. “All right for some!”, one of my troop sergeants remarked sardonically when it later emerged that at night I would be sleeping on a divan in the cottage instead of being obliged to bed down in the makeshift command post. But his imagination ran far ahead of reality. Romance there would be in plenty, but almost heartbreaking in its innocence. We were many years and a social revolution short of Philip Larkin and the Beatles’ first LP.
As Hitler had hoped, on the Ardennes front atrocious flying weather kept the Allied air forces grounded. Such news as we heard on public broadcasts (there was little or nothing from respectable military sources) was of continuing enemy progress and of confusion on the part of the American defenders. At regimental level we were given to understand that the division’s rôle near Waterloo was the defence of the capital and the blocking of the way to Antwerp. Histrionically – as we assumed – rather than seriously, there was mention of the artillery’s traditional backs-to-the wall, die-where-you stand, order of ‘last man; last round’. Gun and weapon pits dug, telephone line laid, our 25-pounders in position, facing south, there was now nothing much in the way of soldiering to occupy our time.
“You’re welcome here whenever the fancy takes you”, the Van Paemels said, meaning in particular the four or five of the battery’s junior officers they now met. That they derived unqualified pleasure from our company was never in doubt. Brussels had been cleared of the enemy less than a month before and on the part of the Belgians the joy was still of liberation; on ours, literally and metaphorically, it was that of coming in from the cold. A large open hearth and a plentiful supply of wood kept the cottage wonderfully cosy. The Van Paemels insisted that we eat meals with them. Judiciously and deliciously we did. There were hot baths. Mending and laundry was done.My troop position being significantly closer than any of the other three, propinquity, that most powerful of advantages, was on my side, and I was able to spend more time in the cottage than anyone else did. No less of a head start, and equally fortuitous, my French was a good deal more confident than that of my battery colleagues. Jules Van Paemel and his wife spoke English fluently, but their daughter’s command of the language, though unforgettably endearing, was rudimentary. Finally, as the youngest of our junior officers, I was nearest her in age. “You children” was how Madame Van Paemel was inclined to address us when we were together. There was an unmistakable wistfulness in her maternal affection for both of us. She had been a young woman in another war and seen other hardly-fledged young men in uniform holding hands with other starry-eyed girls of twenty-one.
On 23 December Louise, one of Denise’s many cousins and “Mac”, her unofficial fiancé, arrived from Brussels. The weather cleared. I was legitimately off-duty all day and the four of us went to Mont St. Jean and the ridge from which Wellington had directed his troops in the decisive stages of the battle on 18 June, 1815. While I strove to picture the events of 129 years ago, Allied aircraft heading for the ‘bulge’ and the devastating erosion of the Panzer invaders crowded the otherwise unblemished blue sky. Absurdly, we waved and cheered them on from the steps of the Lion of Waterloo. Though it had never for a moment occurred to us, their new-found British friends, that the German offensive might ultimately succeed, it had been different for the Belgians. They lacked the blissful ignorance of our generation. The elders especially had adult memories of the First World War and the barbaric destruction of Louvain. They had lived through the blitzkrieg of 1940 and four years of occupation. They had not forgotten Dunkirk. Now, the sight of Allied air power flooding south immensely heartened them and that evening there was an almost palpable sense of relief as well as gaiety in the cottage. Champagne (surely the celebration wine never more triumphantly came into its own than in those last weeks of 1944) cooled in buckets on the frozen lawn and sparkled together with our eager chatter.
Next day, the troop was busy with preparations for a midday Christmas dinner to be held in a neighbouring barn. In the cottage a magnificent Christmas tree, decorations, things to eat and drink and armfuls of presents had arrived in two cars from Brussels along with an aunt, an uncle and more cousins – Christiane and Gérard. Tireless, ant-like industry, not least in the kitchen, turned the cottage into an Aladdin’s cave of colour, brilliance, and richly-scented promise. In the Ardennes, the American 101st Airborne were surrounded at Bastogne and men were dying of cold in their foxholes. A legend (powerfully to be evoked 60 years on in Band of Brothers) was in the making; but we knew nothing of it. We drank more champagne, dined convivially and superbly by candlelight, rolled back the carpet and danced to Glen Miller. Joy could never have been less confined. Denise said it was all “vachement chaleureux”.
In the very small hours there was a loud and urgent knocking at the cottage door. Captain G, who had drawn the short straw that had consigned him to night duty, was sorry to break things up, but the battery was under orders to be ready to move out at 10 a.m. The dancing stopped. The grownups went to bed. The “children”, energy abruptly dissipated, sprawled by the fire, too shocked and dispirited at first to talk, then sometimes murmuring the sort of endearments that are not dared among new acquaintances until high emotion overrules the inhibitions of convention. The candles burned low. Shall I be believed when I swear that the taste of someone else’s tears is as real to me today as it was so long ago? I can hear Denise’s sobs immediately after the momentary, stunned silence that followed the arrival of the duty officer. Her cheek is against mine. With a tenderness I am glad of, and which I hope provokes no embarrassment for the reader, I can recall the scent of her hair as later she slept in my arms there by the dying fire. Lulu was sitting on the carpet, her cheek against the knees of one of my seniors. Christiane was sleeping on cushions, her head in Mac’s lap. There had been apple wood in the fire and in my fancy now I can hear it hissing. There was cognac in my glass and today the taste of cognac is remembrance of all those things.
Standing in my vehicle as we passed along the lane soon after 10 a.m., heading south, I waved at the little group gathered at the bottom edge of the artist’s steeply sloping lawn. As they waved back, Denise turned away suddenly and ran back up to the cottage. The others were still waving when a bend in the roadhid them from view
Fleet Street came onto the horizon one afternoon in late September. A friend of long standing who had moved from London to New York, but had returned to Europe for a holiday, had come for a short visit. We had spent a morning on the beach before climbing back up to the cottage for a late and vinously indulgent lunch, followed inevitably by a long siesta. Some time before the village had stirred to life again there was an insistent knocking at the door. Half asleep still, dishevelled, I put a towel round my waist and went downstairs to be confronted by a complete stranger who nevertheless knew who I was. He was sorry to be disturbing me, he said, but he had been given my name by a mutual friend in London who had suggested that he look me up. “Disturbing” hardly covered the offence of the uninvited and unexpected visit at such an hour and I must have cut him short with an almost unrecognisable attempt at civility. Nevertheless, there was such an attempt in my own cursory apology and suggestion that he come back at about eight in the evening, when I would be more awake and we could have a drink. Chastened, he went away and I returned to the shuttered cool of the upstairs room.
Thus, the circumstances of my first hearing of the Sunday Telegraph. Richard, the intruder of the afternoon, joined us for supper. A freelance journalist, he said that he was hoping to join the City pages of a new Sunday paper that was being launched early the following year by the Daily Telegraph. I pricked up my ears. He knew the name of the editor designate and gave it to me. Next morning, I wrote to Donald McLachlan, care of the Daily Telegraph, saying I supposed that he would in due course be appointing a travel correspondent for the new paper, stating what I believed to be my credentials (which included having been published by the Spectator), and offering myself for the post. A week or two later I received a letter from a Ralph Thackeray, who signed himself Features Editor, suggesting that on my next visit to London I might care to give him a call.
Funds were running perilously low and the cost of a return flight between Palma and Heathrow was not trivial, but it seemed to me a moment for not hanging about either. Less than another week found me facing the letter-writer at his desk behind the great clock that hung (and still hangs) above the pavement in Fleet Street. It was still early days for the new paper, he said. Except for two or three of the key editorial chairs, the lists were still open and likely to remain so for a while. I gave him copies of the Spectator and other pieces of mine that had been published and we talked about Mallorca and Robert Graves. When I confessed that I had been trying without much success to finish a novel he smiled wryly and said that he knew the feeling: he had himself tried to write one about the war in Italy, where he had served, but had never got further than chapter five. After half an hour or so I left with the clear impression that I might at best have joined a bevy of candidates for what would unquestionably be a most sought-after appointment. Thanking me for coming, Thackeray said that he would let me know as soon as there had been any developments, which might not be for “a couple of weeks”.
Back in Deya, I worried about how well or badly I might have done. My hopes were sky-high, but far from counting my chickens it was a time to be contemplating my dwindling resources and asking myself what I would do if the Fleet Street bid should fail. Either way, it would mean the end of lotus-eating in Mallorca. Sadly, and not a little apprehensively, I began to wind up my affairs, warned the temporary occupant of my London flat that I would be back no later than the end of November and wrote to Ralph Thackeray to say that after that date it would be my London address that would find me.
So the Mallorcan idyll came to its close. Idyll it was. When before, when ever again, the quiet, the viscerally good smell of baking bread, the lemon tree on the terrace, the scent of the pines, the cicadas, the sun, the sea at the end of the hillside track, the food and wine with such zest and innocence of pretension, the time to work or swim or drink or sleep as only fancy willed, the laughter and the love of friends? Summer had gone. At the bodega on the Palma road the sale of tarragona had diminished to a trickle compared with the spate of July and August. At the restaurant on the Cala it was no longer necessary to supplement overnight catches in nearby waters with crack-of-dawn deliveries from the fish markets in Palma or Soller. On the beach itself there was little competition for what were judged to be the best spots to instal oneself for the day. The promising young men and their girls of the group photograph were once again fetching out black ties and long frocks for dinner engagements in London and the home counties and grieving for their fast-fading tans.
I had been back in London for almost three weeks before I heard from the Features Editor of the embryonic Sunday Telegraph again. He had been glad to have met me in October and had enjoyed reading the Spectator pieces. No firm decision regarding the travel appointment had yet been made, but if I was still interested it might be advantageous for me to meet the editor designate, and perhaps I would be good enough to telephone himself, Ralph Thackeray, with a view to making a suitable appointment. Still interested! Night and day, I had thought of little else: now philosophically prudent, rehearsing disappointments past and the means by which I had survived them; now fantasising that everything had worked out as intended by an intelligent and friendly fate and that I had a weekly, not a once-in-a-blue-moon byline and could stop scanning the Situations Vacant columns of the Times.
Interested? I telephoned the same morning that the letter arrived and forty-eight hours later was sitting with Ralph Thackeray on one side of a large desk in a sparsely-furnished room and a schoolmasterly man reminiscent of the Provost of Worcester College on the other. Which was curious: McLachlan had indeed been a master at Winchester College and both he and J.C. Masterman had been in wartime Naval Intelligence. We talked briefly about Oxford (he had been at Magdalen) and what I had been doing since, covering much the same ground that I had already covered with Thackeray. Almost offhandedly, it seemed, he came to what he called the appointment of “travel correspondent” (‘Travel Editor’ was a term not then current in Fleet Street) and volunteered the supposition that I would see myself doing it much as it was done on the Sunday Times and the Observer. Since he could not have known that I happened to have strong opinions on that precise subject, it was a remark owing more to a lack of genuine interest, I thought, than to an intention to provoke me. All the same, given the views that I held, provoke me it did. Not really, I said: in fact, I was hoping to do it as differently as possible from those two examples. “Oh!”, said McLachlan, a touch indignantly, I thought. “How so?”
I wonder still what might have happened if his telephone had not rung before I could reply, so that after listening intently for a few moments to whomever it was on the other end of the line he had looked up, apologised to Thackeray and me for the interruption and effectively dismissed us. Back in his own office, the Features Editor was apologetic in his turn. He was sorry that it was all turning into a bit of a cliffhanger, but Donald McLachlan himself was under a lot of pressure. Meanwhile, it might be worth my while letting him, Thackeray, have a note briefly embodying what I had obviously been about to say when the interruption had cut me short: how I saw myself handling travel if not in the way that it was handled by the Sunday Times and the Observer, and so on. I went back to the flat, spent all that evening and half of next morning in composition and typing and delivered the result to the reception desk at 135, Fleet Street before lunch.
In the yellowing, increasingly brittle and exiguous archive that I still possess relevant to my Fleet Street years I find the following memorandum, dated 15th October 1959.
THE EDITORIAL PRESENTATION OF TRAVEL
“For it (travel writing) is a literature not of facts, but of impressions. And yet these impressions may be facts of the highest order.”
The quotation that I dare to take as my maxim for the task that you set me is from the introduction to the 1943 Everyman edition of Alexander Kinglake’s classic of travel writing, Eothen.“Reader service” is today the almost universal editorial approach to such travel journalism as exists in the popular press. By far the larger part of it consists of so-called “objective” accounts of places, activities and facilities: whether the beach at – say – Cannes or Catanzaro consists of sand or of pebbles, whether the swimming is safe or dangerous, what the hotels are like. Assuming, as it does, the ability of readers to make use of the information and opinions that such articles contain, this seems to me a fundamentally wrong approach. It is probably safe to say that most people would like to travel if they had the money, the time and the physical ability to do so, but the great majority of any national newspaper’s readers (which is also to say the majority of the population at large) does not at any given time have the ability to travel abroad. They like reading about travel, but not if what is written is obviously intended for the practical benefit of someone who at that given moment does not happen to be themselves.
To be read (and therefore to be of any use to anyone) travel writing must be readable. I may eagerly read an account – say – of walking in the Rockies if (more likely than not in fantasy rather than fact) it allows me to identify myself with the experience. I am likely to resent it if, by largely consisting of ‘practical’ information, it excludes me from any chance of vicarious pleasure. In short, the more ‘factual’ and ‘practical’ a travel piece is, the more it rubs the reader’s nose in his or her present inability to get up and go.
In the very broadest sense of the term, to be readable, travel writing (as opposed to conventional guidebook material) should be entertaining : “a good read”. ‘Objective’ accounts of things done and seen are rarely entertaining. It follows that a travel columnist ought not to be content with anything less than an attempt always to write well. It is no good telling the reader (as a recent travel piece did) that “Greece is one of the most beautiful countries in the world”, or that “a journey through the Rockies is a never-to-be-forgotten experience”. It is futile to declare that “The view from the top was breath-taking”. All such statements shirk the writer’s proper duty. If Greece is beautiful, the writer’s observations, impressions and prose must themselves seek to convey beauty. If the journey was “memorable”, the account of it must be equally worth remembering. If the view was “breath-taking”, then the reporter must strive to take the reader’s breath away with the force of his description. If he succeeds in these objectives the reader will know a lot more about the subject of the piece than he did before.
Ten days after Christmas the briefest of possible letters from Donald McLachlan formally offered me the job.
A SUMMER IN MALLORCA
Though he had not actively sought the status of Deya’s most prominent resident, it was one that Robert enjoyed. Like most of us, he liked to be liked and was not difficult to become acquainted with, though notably parsimonious thereafter with his tolerance for anyone who failed to interest him either for their intrinsic selves, or for their usefulness. If this seems to detract from his own congeniality, it does him an injustice: he was generally kind and as generous as he could afford to be, even with his time. Such interest as I possessed for him was certainly not that of the aspiring writer, an article all too common on the Deya scene, but rested rather upon a triviality or two in common. Each of us had gone straight from school into the army and served for 5 years. Robert had been in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, I in the 53rd (Welsh) Division. Both of us had gone to Oxford. Each of us had been a boxer and broken his nose.
Years later, Robert was to say that there was a time in Deya when the only two foreigners who ever did any serious work there were himself and I. Fanciful though the exaggeration was, a document here on my desk suggests that it may have held a grain of substance. Some 70,000 words long, the yellowing, heavily corrected typescript is a monument to a doomed attempt to write a first novel. Once the move to Deya had been decided on it had seemed the obvious thing to do; what else could sensibly occupy me in a remote hillside village in Mallorca? There would be no dearth of material, I had thought, no need for creative invention: the experiences of the past few years had surely embraced as much real-life agony and ecstasy as any best-seller might require. Besides, unless they underwent some sort of catharsis, the emotional traumas that were still so much with me could only continue to exert an increasingly baleful influence on an already unpromising future. Never waste good agony seemed especially appropriate to the circumstances. I almost began to search for a title that would look well in the book reviews.
So, as A Summer in Mallorca bears witness, I worked. I started early, stopped more or less when I had run out of steam, in between wrestled mightily with plotting and scene-setting and character-building and dialogue and, as I supposed, whatever else novelists were advised to attend to. So I rejoiced when I had had what seemed to have been an especially good morning and despaired when I had nothing to show for hours of hard labour except a few paragraphs that I knew were no good before the ink was dry on the paper. The trouble was that I had so far not done too badly at writing short factual pieces that editors were willing to pay me for, but had everything to learn about any other form of creative writing. To be of serious literary worth agony needs to mature. In its unseasoned state, poetry, not prose, is the medium for its expression and Robert would have been capable of putting mine to better use. He not only knew what a competent writer could do with the pain of unrequited love, but insisted on the poet’s necessity of it. (Hence —he would have argued, and did assiduously preach— the indispensability of his famous Muses.) In Deya I was too close to the past: our hero in the would-be novel looks far too like myself; our heroine is the double of the girl who faced me across the candles in Trastevere and swam costumeless with me at Capri’s Faraglioni; the villain of the poorly plotted piece is clearly identifiable in press cuttings of the period as a panellist on TV’s popular Brains Trust; the dialogue is reproduced from the audio loop that was still running in my head. But real life requires skilful contrivance if it is to be publishable. The Deya typescript, testament to the industry that Robert Graves advertised, is too much authenticity and not nearly enough artistry. What value the 70,000 words may have represented as emotional therapy I cannot say. What a publisher might have given for them I have never dared enquire.
In at least one respect Robert’s extravagant pronouncement regarding foreigners in Deya was outrageously flawed: it took no account of the man upon whom he was almost as dependent as upon the very air he breathed. Replying to my enquiry about accommodation earlier in the year, Karl Gay’s self-identification as ‘secretary’ had been a ridiculous belittling of his true status. Born Karl Goldschmidt, a refugee from the burgeoning Nazi terror of the late 1930s, he had first met Graves in Mallorca in 1933 and begun working for him and Laura Riding in Deya the following year. In 1936, with the outbreak of the Spanish civil war imminent, he had joined them in a last-minute evacuation to England and only by quick thinking and energetic negotiation on Grave’s part had escaped forced repatriation to Germany and almost certain death. On their return to live in Mallorca in 1947, Graves and his second wife, Beryl, invited Gay to return to Deya and his old job. Accompanied by his recently acquired pretty and lively English wife, Irene (“René”), the 35-year-old Karl, now a naturalised Briton, moved into Can Torrent, the house which Robert owned, neighbouring his own.
“My peppery task-master” was Graves’s own assessment of Karl’s status for the next 18 years. It disguised a multitude of services without which Graves himself would professionally have been desolate. Transforming the poet and novelist’s prodigious outpouring of hand-written work with its plethora of corrections into typescript acceptable to a publisher was alone an indispensable function requiring uncommon skills, but Karl’s contribution to the finished publication went much further: when occasion demanded, he was not only researcher, but copy editor and not always welcome literary critic. Standing in for Robert’s own conscience, as so often he felt obliged to do, Karl was not unwilling, if pressed, to agree that he possibly knew the poet and his best interests better than Robert himself knew them. Grave’s detractors have sometimes accused him of exploitation of the man who served him with something like devotion for almost thirty years. Karl, viscerally grateful for the part that Robert had played in saving him from the Holocaust, never made such a charge. René Gay, whose attitude to life, though far from sentimental, fell engagingly short of the cynical, could be merciless in her appraisal of Robert’s many idiosyncrasies and (as she saw them) affectations. Karl, by contrast, was seldom without a mitigation, tending, if cornered, to resort to the defence that Robert would have had no difficulty in endorsing: poets were not to be judged by the tenets of ordinary mortals. Asked for his thoughts on Robert’s famous (or infamous) ‘Muses’, Karl would be inclined to entertain the possibility of the writer’s need for poetic inspiration. René would lift her eyes entreatingly to the ceiling and tilt back her head in a silent but eloquent “If you believe that you’ll believe anything”! To anyone of Robert’s close acquaintance, Karl and René Gay were as much a part of Deya as the most famous foreigner himself.
It has been suggested by the most readable of Graves’s two principal biographers (Miranda Seymour, Life on the Edge) that his decline, both physical and mental, became marked in the early 1960s. I can bear scant witness to the facts. Before 1959 I had never met him. Later, I was not with him frequently enough to make such a judgement. During my time in Mallorca he was often absent, when he was there he was still working too hard to be gregarious. In the montage of snapshots that passes for remembrance of that summer he features only twice. In the first he is in the garden at Canellun, burlesquing Lawrence of Arabia at a rehearsal for his traditional 24th July birthday play in which, implausibly, I played the part of a cowboy. In the second, wearing swimming trunks, he is standing on the rocks at what he liked to think of as his private bathing place a short distance round the corner from the Cala, but without a beach, and therefore unattractive to the great majority of holidaymakers. To anyone who knew the form, it was not done to bathe here unless Robert had suggested it. Occasionally our visits would coincide and we would walk back together up the rough track leading to Canellun and the village. A visiting Kingsley Amis, aged only 40 but the worse for a self-indulgent life-style, is said to have done the same a year or two later and found it hard to match his 67-year-old companion’s pace.
Holding so much of the summer that I loved, another frame in the Deya montage is also one of the most evocative. At a table by the railings on the very edge of the concrete floor of the restaurant at the Cala, two men are having lunch. Both are wearing shorts. One, myself, is also wearing a half-sleeved blue shirt; the other, though topless, escapes any charge of giving offence by reason of being handsomely built and deeply tanned. For both of us, together or alone or in other company of our choosing, lunching at the Cala is without any doubt the most agreeable thing that we ever do or can imagine doing in Deya. It is what Deya is ‘all about’. Perched up on the rock at the west side of the cove, in the slender shade of the slatted reeds, there is often a whisper of a breeze. For thirst, there is the wine, always ordered by colour and the capacity of the container, never by branded bottle. For the unfailing appetite there are the salads and fish (and lamb chops and escallops of beef) and island cheese and generous quantities of bread. The proprietor’s family does much of the fishing and all of the cooking. Maria, the strikingly attractive daughter, does most of the serving. This, it is agreed, is the quintessence of Mediterranean bliss, a delight equal to that to be savoured at ten times the price in fashionable waterfront tavernas in the isles of the Aegean or simple little millionaire hideaways on the Ligurian Riviera. In countless other places from the Rock of Gibraltar to the Cedars of Lebanon, fair women and braver men than us are seated at impeccably furnished tables on 12-crewed yachts or 3-starred terraces in jet-set rendezvous, spooning caviare from ice-packed bowls, sipping Meursault and Montrachet poured by white-jacketed sommeliers, while whole brigades of cooks prepare the langoustines royales croustillantes or the selle d’agneau en croûte de pain au sel. But at this moment we would rather be here today with whatever that cool white wine in the carafe happens to be and whatever Maria has recommended on our plates than anywhere else on earth.
We came up from the beach about half past one (Maria knows our lunchtime habits and has defended the corner table by the railings against all other would-be occupiers) and it is now getting on for four o’clock. Two whole carafes have come and gone. I am still sitting, lazily asking myself if I have what it takes to go back down to the beach and doze under a sunshade until the evening cool begins, when my companion gets to his feet, kicks off his sandals, says “race you for the price of lunch”, climbs over the railings, dives into the 15 feet-deep crystal-clear water ten feet below and powers his way to the far side of the cove. There is not the slightest chance of my accepting the wager. For one thing, I was brought up strictly to believe that it is dangerous to bathe soon after a meal. For another, I swim with what I can best describe as a laborious cross between a breaststroke and a sidestroke and don’t intend making a fool of myself by comparison with the challenger’s easy overarm crawl, of which inhibition he is well aware.
In a little while, the swimmer returns, barefoot, with a towel draped round his neck, plonks himself down at the table, from which everything but a jug of water and glasses has been cleared, looks impatiently round for Maria and when he catches her eye opens his arms wide in an unmistakable gesture of urgent and agonised supplication, which Maria acknowledges with a smile of long-suffering understanding. In a few minutes she is making her way to our table with another carafe of white wine and a wicker basket of chopped baguette.
My so-far-anonymous vis-à-vis is my junior by some eight years but we were contemporaries at Oxford where he, like me, read history. At the university we moved in different circles, but I once incautiously accepted a lift with him in his open sports car after a party, when he characteristically took a sharp bend at a speed which a sober calculation of elementary kinetics and geometry would have found to be wildy imprudent, writing off the car and (so the police and the proctors warned) very nearly the driver’s academic career into the bargain. Seeing the bend approaching, I had remembered military training in crash procedures, taken appropriate precautions and walked away almost unscathed. The man at the wheel bore the scars for the rest of his cruelly short life.
Had we been there 25 years in the future, my luncheon companion at the Cala would have been instantly recognised by many of our fellow visitors as the most controversial (and perhaps the most popular) news reader on their television screens. He was Reggie Bosanquet. “A man of consummate excess”, said a friend. Where most people would be content with a single measure, Reggie would demand a double. When two or three had proved enough for any reasonable person, Reggie would call for a fourth, or a fifth; not merely selfishly, but with insistence on the participation of all those present. “An irrepressible joie de vivre” was an attribute accorded him by a life-long admirer. It was an attribute not suited to all occasions and all comers, but for the ten days he was in Deya that summer it was a source of more pleasure than resentment. Karl Gay argued politics with him, René scolded him for his flirtatious indiscretions and leaving tar from the beach on her carpet, but much enjoyed his company at barbecue suppers. Robert was sorry that his stay in Deya was not long enough for him to take part in the birthday play.
They were days for remembering. Here is a post-card from Edinburgh, dated 25.V.60: ‘Arrive Palma Wednesday, 2.15 local. Looking foward to seeing you. Kath.’ Here another, postmarked Kensington, 7th July: ‘Self and luggage arrived OK. Love and all thanks again, Elizabeth.’ The picture on the reverse is of Buckingham Palace. A third, saying: ‘Arrived back safely. Hating it. Hope you miss me!’ is from Hannah. A bent arrow, drawing attention to a photograph of the Cala on the obverse, accompanies the additional message ‘Wish I was HERE.’ Kath met Robert briefly and held his attention for longer than mere courtesy demanded. Elizabeth, a high-powered secretary whose luggage had been delayed on the flight out, liked cooking tortillas. Hannah was a third-year medical student who became an eminent consultant in gynaecology and said that she didn’t think she would ever love anywhere else as much as she loved the Cala. In years to come I was to see them all happily married, memories of that summer always crowding my mind. Once, in my fancy, the echo of exuberant laughter and someone shouting “Look! Venus arising from the waves!” rivalled the music of the bridal chorus from Lohengrin.
And here is a snap of four young men and as many girls on the terrace of a villa on the hillside above the Cala, jokily posing as if in a school team photograph; girls in the front row seated with legs crossed, men standing behind them, arms folded. There is something about the men which suggests that they are all high achievers. The girls look like the sort of young women that high achievers tend to prefer for summer holiday house parties. I had known two of the men and two of the girls before Deya; between them, they produced one married couple who have lived happily ever afterwards.
They were days that were numbered. Looking a few months ahead, I could see no reason for supposing that anything but rough weather awaited my return to England. As the laboriously lengthening typescript all too clearly showed, there was no reason for thinking that a mere déménagement had fundamentally changed anything, that any emotional rehabilitation had been better than cosmetic. Concomitantly, the financial prospect was dire. To think that the accumulated words themselves might have any material value would require an effort of supreme self-delusion. The occupant of my flat had so far failed to pay the agreed rent. The landlords were disputing my right to sub-let and were threatening repossession at the end of December. Before the end of the year there would be nothing in the bank.
A Summer in Mallorca
For the first few days I kept hearing the telephone, though there was no telephone in the house. I would be walking to the post office or down to the beach when the insistent brr-brr would have me turning round to go back and answer it. In the beginning I had to make a conscious effort to convince myself that I was indeed imagining the sound, in spite of the fact that, with a manually operated exchange in the village, a call would not have been signalled by a brr-brr but by one long ring. If I had entertained any serious doubts about the wisdom of my escape from London to Mallorca that phantom telephone would have dispelled them. To have become so dull, so stupid, so much a slave to the ordinary, urban existence as to behave with less intelligence than one of Pavlov’s dogs!
The house – cottage, rather – belonged to the baker. It had a cistern that was replenished only when it rained. After a long, dry spell – and that year we had no rain on the island from May until the end of July – the water from the first storm would be diverted onto the terrace for a few minutes before being allowed to flow into the well, which was necessary, the baker said, to clean the roof. Sometimes, he said, the rainwater would taste of sulphur, but you couldn’t help that, it was the lightning that did it. There were three bedrooms, a living room and a sort of cubbyhole that was quite big enough for another bed, though there was no glass in the windows. The best upstairs room had a tiled floor and a double bed with knobs on the wooden posts. A brightly coloured picture of the Saviour on Calvary hung above it on the white distempered wall. There was also a kitchen with a fireplace. Sometimes I cooked on the fire. It wasn’t meant for that, of course. Properly, cooking was done on the charcoal range, but I used to like sitting on the low, rush-bottomed stool, watching a mess of vegetables simmer away over logs that I had fetched and carried for myself from beneath the pines on the cliff top. That was all of the cottage except for the outside privy, which was luxurious by local standards: the baker had taken trouble with the seat and had tiled the floor. In the wall he had also fixed a large hook from which a watering can could be hung. The rose that should have been on the spout of the can had been attached to a hole made in its base, so that if you filled the can with water and then hung it up again on the wall you could take a shower. It was better than the more elaborate device to be found in many a hotel.
I had not consciously sought it, but simplicity proved to be the blessing of those days. What I ate was mostly grown in fields and gardens below the village and bought by me in the market twice a week. What I drank was mostly the rough red wine that cost less than bottled beer and that I fetched in a five-litre jar from the bodega on the Palma road. Familiarity with their origins enhanced for me the value of the things that went into my kitchen. A lettuce was not just a lettuce but a victory won against the blaze of summer, the product of laborious hoeing early in the morning, of careful watering from meagre sources when the sun had gone down. Fish were not dull, flaccid corpses upon a slab, unrelated to their element, but fresh, colourful proof of the industry that lay behind the lights that bobbed and twinkled at night, way out at sea. Best of all in sentimental recollection was the bread that was made by my landlord’s own hands. Each evening the warm, delicious smell of baking came creeping through the walls that separated his quarters and mine. Each morning I bought what I needed – light-as-a-feather ensaimadas, or the flat, off-white Mallorcan loaves, or what I liked best of all, but it was made only twice a week, the rough wholemeal bread they called “pan integral”.
In any circumstances the task that I had set myself would have called for discipline. On the island especially as spring gave way to summer and lotus-eating became the accepted occupation of most expatriates, it demanded a special attention to routine. I woke each morning soon after dawn and was out of bed before six. From the tree on the terrace I picked a lemon. There was pleasure in its scent and in the feel of it, cool and firm. There was pleasure in its crispness under the blade. I used to stand outside with the glass in my hand – hot water, no sugar, and an astringency that almost made one catch at one’s breath – waiting for the sun to creep above the rim of the mountains and take the chill from the air. No sooner had it arrived than I was concerned to protect myself against it. So long as the interior of the cottage was kept in shade it remained tolerably cool even on the hottest day, but let the front doors remain open, or the latticed shutters be left unclosed, and the temperature would soar.
By half past seven breakfast was over and I was at work. From then until one o’clock I sat at my table in the ground floor room with the door to the terrace slightly ajar, admitting light just sufficient for my needs. When not typing I became aware of a dog’s bark, the buzz of flies, the cool punctuation of water dripping into the well. Sometimes I would lunch there in the cottage, my siesta afterwards being proportionate to my consumption of the Tarragona wine. Sometimes I took cheese and green peppers and tomatoes and a flask of the Tarragona and went down to the sea. There was a place that Robert Graves had shown me (a treasured favour) where hardly anyone else ever came.
By six the sun had gone over the mountain and I was climbing slowly back through the olive groves. By half-past seven I had taken my shower and was at work again for an hour or more. By ten I had dined. Days began on the terrace, days ended there. I sat in a rocking chair drinking coffee, smoking a six-peseta cigar from the village store, thinking long thoughts. Cicadas shrilled. Stars crowded the sky. The bells of restless sheep sometimes sounded from the terraces below. At midnight, as I fell asleep, there was gossiping still outside the bakery door.
‘Once Upon an Island’, the Sunday Telegraph, 1961
Among haphazard memorabilia of the 1960s is a typewritten letter from a certain Karl Gay at Can Torrent, Deya, Mallorca, who introduces himself as secretary to Robert Graves, on whose behalf Gay is writing to acknowledge my own letter of 4th April. Graves is looking forward to seeing me in Deya and meanwhile has asked that I might be given help in finding accommodation. There are two or three possibilities which Gay thinks might interest me. What he would suggest…….
Picturesque though the poetic inspiration might be, it is almost certain that the origin of the Dagenham epiphany was to be found not in a misattributed Goethe quotation, but in the chance encounter I had had with Graves a month or two earlier. A painter we both knew, who had a studio in Soller on the north-west coast of Mallorca, had invited us to a party at the Chelsea Arts Club in London and I had talked with Robert about a few days that I had recently spent in Picardy exploring the battlefields of the war of 1914—1918. Graves, of course, had fought on the Somme in 1916 and had famously written about it in his autobiographical Goodbye to All That. We had chatted about my experiences in walking over some of the ground described in his own book and those of his wartime friend, Siegfried Sassoon, and had established a rapport sufficient for him to say on parting that I might care to look him up in Deya if ever I found myself in those parts.
It is not easy today to write about Deya in the early 1960s without the sort of geriatric nostalgia to which those who have reached THE EVENING OF LIFE are all too prone. A septuagenarian Francophile, writing about the Saint-Paul de Vence on the French Côte d’Azur that he knew and loved as a boy, might suffer the same difficulty. The inexorable tides of mass affluence, leisure, and overseas travel that would soon flood the entire Mediterranean littoral were rising, but not yet threatening to drown the little village more than a mile above the sea on Mallorca’s north-west coast. There were two or three modest places to stay, but no ‘luxury’ hotels, no Michelin-starred restaurants, fashionable bistros, boutiques, supermarkets, or municipal car parks. Disco was a term that had not yet been invented. Summers already saw a few foreign-owned villas for rent, and not all the calamari that were sold at the beach restaurant were caught by the fishing family that owned it, but not a bottle of Dom Pérignon or Roederer Cristal champagne, the staple tipple of your modern celebrity, if ever heard of in any of the modest local eating establishments, had ever been sold there. Michael Douglas, one of today’s summer celebs, had not yet set foot in Europe. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Douglas’s second wife, was well short of her first birthday. Richard Branson, owner-to-be of La Residencia Hotel, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has a house on the mountainside high above the village, were still at school.
Contrary to a popular legend, it had not been Robert Graves, advised by Gertrude Stein, who had ‘discovered’ Deya: the Catalan poet and painter, Santiago Rusinol, for years resident in Paris along with many other expatriates, including Stein, had been there at least a quarter of a century before. Graves had first arrived in 1929. Three years earlier, although already married and with four children, he had met, and soon become intimately involved with the American poet, Laura Riding. The subsequent affair had bizarrely led to Riding’s attempted suicide and Robert’s injury, and to escape the ensuing scandal and possible criminal charges the couple had fled to the Balearics. Ever since, with the exception of the years of the Spanish Civil War and WWII (collectively 1939 —1946) it had been the British writer’s presence in Deya that had contributed to its steadily increasing popularity. It was a popularity, which he deplored, but had himself unwittingly done much to ensure: he had written frequently about the island and had willingly lent himself to numerous media features, that had revealed his whereabouts.
“The proofs reached me in Mallorca , where I had gone to live in 1929 as soon as I finished the writing”, Robert wrote concerning the first edition of Goodbye to All That. “The book sold well enough in England and the United States to enable me to pay my debts and leave me free to live and write without immediate anxiety for the future”. He lived at Canellun, back from the road to Soller and just above the track leading down to the Cala, and except for the years of enforced absence had done so since 1932, the year in which the 2-storey house in its own grounds had been completed. Unlike the sort of faux bohemian who occasionally thrived in the local community of expatriates, he was no lotus eater and was not frequently seen in the village itself. “I’m a driven man”, he once told me. “Driven by the desire to give my children a decent education”. Income from Goodbye to All That notwithstanding, he had never been without anxiety for long. The writing had not been restricted to a prolific outpouring of poetry, which he considered to be the chief purpose of his creative life but which, he said, “never paid the household bills, let alone the school fees”. Untold thousands who had never read a line of it had read not only Goodbye to All That, but his two historical novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God and his book about Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence and the Arabs. Generations of sixth formers and university students had had The Greek Myths on their shelves. The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, had not itself been a money-spinner, but it had hugely contributed to his reputation as an original, not to say colourfully eccentric man of letters, which in turn had secured him numerous highly profitable lecture tours in the USA. Before his death in 1985, Graves would have published more than 50 volumes of poetry and more than 70 other titles ranging from The Nazarene Gospels Restored, a work about the life of Jesus Christ, to They Hanged my Saintly Billy, the story of the life and public execution of a notorious 19th century murderer. All of his creative work, the poems most especially, went arduously through many drafts, written with an old-fashioned steel-nibbed pen. Subsequent typescripts, produced by Karl or a helper, were revised again and again.
Now, in 1960, the 65-year-old expatriate fugitive of 1929 was at the height of his fame, divorced from his first wife in 1949, long married to his second, father of 8 children, sought after by the great and the good, both in his native land and further afield. He had received the Christina Foyle Poetry Award and the Gold Medal of the American National Poetry Society. The American magazine, Holiday (which never dealt in nonentities and paid among the highest freelance rates in the business) had several times commissioned him. The University of Buffalo in the USA had paid $30,000 (roughly £150,000 today) for his discarded manuscripts (“the contents of my waste paper basket”, said Robert) and other archive material. Huw Wheldon, himself a leading light among film and TV producers, had made a documentary of his life. He had been on one of the most popular radio and TV quiz shows ever broadcast and had appeared at the Royal Festival Hall with John Betjeman. Sam Spiegel had consulted him about his film, Lawrence of Arabia. He was a devoted friend of Ava Gardner (aged 63, she would attend his memorial service), on first name terms with Alec Guinness (who visited him in Mallorca), lunched severally with Robert Frost, Stephen Spender (another visitor to Deya) and W.H. Auden and was on the short list for the Chair of Poetry at the University of Oxford. Harold Macmillan had offered him a CBE, which he had refused.
If The Spectator had liked my piece about the south of France, why not one about the south of Italy? And what would be on the way there? Why, Capri! (Never waste good agony, said Baudelaire.) Politely, The Spectator declined the offer, but almost by return of post, and to my astonishment, came an acceptance from The Tatler, provided that I could supply good photographs. At school I had been secretary of the photographic society. From a fellow officer in India I had bought a little Zeiss Ikon camera which he had acquired in Germany as an involuntary loan from a captured member of the Wehrmacht. Oh, the rapture a month or two later of a double-page spread of my own black and white pictures, accompanied by my own laboriously-crafted words! My abiding memory of Calabria, I said, was ‘of mountains and sea; of olives trees and umbrella pines; of hedges of wild rosemary; of gorse in flower; of fields of purple clover; of oranges and lemons, and of the sun’.
Six more Tatler pieces in the archive of my earliest published journalism not only mark the way things went over the next two years, but offer an explanation. June 1957 saw another of my own pictures displayed over a huge false double (two thirds of a double page) to illustrate the account of a walk to Nea Moni on the Greek island of Chios. In September, again with another magnificent false double, but this time of the harbour front at Saint Malo, I was telling Tatler readers that there was ‘a comfortable, no-nonsense atmosphere about all things in Brittany; born, perhaps, of sunshine and rain in the right proportions, of strong winds and soft breezes, of a coast that is here all granite, stark and unyielding, there all green fields and pine trees and infinities of tide-washed sands’. I was telling them, too, of a dinner at the Moulin de Rosmadec in Pont Aven where I chose ‘a Montrachet 47 to keep company with lobster and a tarragon sauce; the second course of a dinner that I remember with an almost idolatrous delight’. (The Moulin is still there; still among the Michelin stars.)
‘Nigel Buxton recalls some incidents that have highlighted journeys he has made to different parts of Europe’, says an introduction to a general travel feature in the Tatler of January 1958, but the accompanying pictures are agency ones; not mine. The following July has my byline attached to words and pictures on the subject of Kastoria, in Macedonia, and in September I am enthusing about walking in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland and reporting on a climbing school at Rosenlaui.
That summer, also, I must have met Godi Michel, legendary head of the Oberland tourist office, for in the Tatler of January ’59 I am reporting on an October chamois hunt with him, again in the Bernese Oberland.
‘We got to Lauterbrunnen at about four o’clock and took the Mürren funicular. At the top we left the station on foot and for more than an hour, Michel leading, climbed steadily upward through the trees. The pace seemed tediously slow at first, each step studied, deliberate and sure. After a while I realized that it was exactly right: that even with burdens far heavier than our rifles and small rucksacks we could have sustained the same gentle process for hours on end. The only sounds were made by our footsteps and the falling rain. By half past five we had cleared the tree line and were following a track along the steep side of a valley. A wind was blowing the rain hard in our faces. The cold struck even through my waterproof and a thick sweater. The track became steeper. The wind increased. The rain ran down my face and was salt on the lips. The bottom of the valley was hidden in cloud and darkness was coming on. I was wondering how much further we had to go and whether we would need our torches when Michel paused and pointed up ahead, higher still. In the gloom was the outline of a hut with a chink of light at a window. Suddenly I felt desperately tired.
It was very good to reach shelter. Two other hunters were already there and the stove was well stoked with pine logs. Food was cooking in black iron pans. Michel and I had brought whisky with us and, while the others ate, sat drinking by lamplight, happily aware that the hut’s crude comfort was yet wholly sufficient. Later, we too ate, then climbed a ladder into the loft and lay on the mattresses of deep box beds with federbetten to cover us. Comfort was transmuted to luxury by the sound of the wind and the rain’.
The archive yields no more Tatler. At some juncture or other, still drifting in the general direction that I evidently thought consistent with my abilities and fancies, I had joined the so-called ‘Press Office’ of a large drug and chemicals company four stops from the Essex end of the London Underground’s District Line. My dealings with the press proved to be minimal. Instead, and to my liking, I found myself doing the job of an advertising copywriter; but not only composing text; charged also with the appropriate visual conception. It was nothing if not ‘creative’. It was fun. Occupying the desk opposite me was a girl who was good company for lunch, the Proms and bistro suppers. Yet in retrospect, what happened was almost inevitable. When the last love affair had ended in a cry, six years before, I had had Oxford and the ineluctible necessity of staying the academic course to keep me on the rails. After South Africa, I had been almost wholly bereft. The travel and freelance writing had provided me with a succession of short-term objectives. Dagenham had required the establishment of a daily routine and a temporary illusion of long-term purposefulness. But all no better than anodyne, all killing time. And to what end? I was still in London with all its painful associations, doing nothing purposefully, replaying the past in an endless loop of self-flagellatory regrets, trapped in an emotional wasteland as deplorable for my friends as for myself. Something had to change. All else apart, my press office salary was woefully unequal to even the unambitious, unpretentious, very rarely saturnalian London way of life that, willy-nilly, had fallen to me. No mere geographical shift would be likely to achieve a miraculous rehabilitation, but surely a sweeping change of scenery was a necessary start.
One Essex lunchtime at the end of March, I had taken a rudimentary picnic to unkempt open ground adjacent to the administrative complex and was lying on my back in long grass, gazing up beyond cirrus cloud opaque enough to temper but not wholly conceal the sun, daydreaming of eternal summer and wine-dark seas. All at once a famous line from Goethe, often read, never intentionally committed to memory, came into my head: Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn? Goethe had been reminiscing about Italy, but then I had ignorantly believed he was referring to the Balearics. It was as if I had been waiting for a signal that had come as suddenly as the report of a starter’s gun.
What? Shall I ever sigh and pine? My lines and life are free …… there was wine before my sighs did dry it: there was corn before my tears did drown it. I struck the board, and cried, ‘No more. I will abroad’. **
Reodorants were among the company’s chemical products and it would be nice if the floral fragrances —albeit artificial— of border and boudoir were to enhance my curiously clear recollection of the moment. Sadly, it is the stench of pyridine* that in memory pervades it as powerfully as it pervaded the Essex air between Upney and Upminster when the wind was unfavourable. Within a month, I had abandoned Dagenham, injudiciously let my flat to the friend of a friend, and on a day when the plains beyond Palma were glorious with almond blossom and it was impossible to envisage the circumstances of George Sand’s notorious A Winter in Mallorca, was driving up into the hills above the northern coast to a chance encounter six months hence that would determine the course of the rest of my life.
* George Herbert, 1633
* * Pyridine is indispensable to the manufacture of a host of chemical products. Wikipedia describes it as having “a distinctive, unpleasant fish-like odour”. This is to put it sedately: it stinks to high heaven.
There were two Battles of Normandy; the one on the beaches and the one inland. No single day of battle in the world’s history ever involved so great a concentration of power as the Battle of the Normandy beaches. None was more terrible. In none were men more brave. And none was ever better recorded or easier to read long afterwards – on the ground. division by division, company by company, sometimes man by man, it is possible – and it is a humbling education – to see (to walk, to bathe, to lie in the sun) almost exactly, often precisely, where they landed and fought all those years ago.
Although there is a Guide Bleu to the area and events of the landings, and there are museums at Ste Mère Eglise, Utah and Arromanches, most of the permanent markers of the action have, mercifully, been left to speak for themselves. Given a little knowledge upon the part of the observer, they do so at times with an accuracy and an eloquence that cancel out the years and induce a profound awe.
In the book by David Howarth – Dawn of D-Day – a description of an incident at Omaha beach reads: “And there, half-submerged in the surf again, Haas trained his gun and laid it on the pillbox. He fired ten rounds. So far as he could see they all went through the aperture and exploded inside. Anyhow, the German gun was silent after that.”
There are several pillboxes on the high ground overlooking the sands of Omaha, and finding this particular one is a matter of chance. It is half hidden in the brambles and bracken. Other people have been there and made a track of sorts, but it is steep, and slippery when it is wet, and the brambles clutch at you in your scramble to the squat, ugly pile with its broken mouth gaping sideways at the sea. All the emplacements bear the marks of explosions inside: the walls pitted, scored, cracked; the ironwork distorted. But in the walls of this one are holes so neat that they might seem to have been drilled. Look closer and at the end of them are embedded the nose caps of 35mm shells. They are so deep in the concrete that only a projectile of very high velocity could possibly have made them (Haas commanded a 35mm, anti-aircraft gun). The angle of penetration is such that the shells must certainly have come from the beach.
At all the landing places of the 30-mile assault front the history of that day is written in brute letters of concrete and rusting steel. Emplacements that could not fire to landwards, but could not be detected or destroyed from that direction either, still command the beaches. Look through their casements and the casualties in spite of the colossal pre-landing bombardments are in part easily explained. On the Pointe-du-Hoc the observation forts that served the huge coastal batteries still dominate the cliffs where the American Rangers made their suicidal climb. Just eastwards of the river Orne there is a place called Merville. It is a small place; so small that it is unplaced on any but large-scale maps. The official history of the Second World War says of it: “The fifth of the 3rd Brigade tasks, and a very stiff one, fell to the 9th Parachute Battalion; it was to destroy the enemy battery just clear of the woods to the south of Merville – Franceville Plage … The guns were in steel-doored concrete emplacements six feet thick … within a belt of barbed wire, double in places, 15 feet thick and five feet high. Mines had been sown profusely and there were about 15 weapon pits. Outside was a wired-in strongpoint with five machine-gun emplacements and … ”
The battery is still there if one cares to look for it. The mines have gone but there are the telltale craters where some exploded. The wire has been taken for farm fences, though some still lies rusting and half-buried in the earth. The guns have gone too, but the position tells enough of the story; of the 150 men who attacked with only Bangalore torpedoes and personal weapons a few more than half survived. Earth still partly conceals the emplacements. No signs point to them. Only a rutted farm track leads to them. But they are permanently part of the landscape, taken for granted by the villagers and the cows.
Away from the beaches and the coastal batteries it is quite another story. There are monuments, of course – “To the memory of our glorious liberators, who on the 6th day of June 1944…” – but they are merely the record of operations; not the scars. Hardly an acre west and north of Falaise was innocent of action and the marks of it that then seemed ineradicable. But trees grow tall in 20 years; villages have been rebuilt, towns replanned. In the countryside things are now as they were before the patrols came through the woods and along the hedgerows where the Spandaus spat and chattered; you cannot tell where the tanks swivelled on the weapon pits and crushed their paths through the clover and the waist-high corn.
This is Bougy, where the mortar and shell bursts stripped the trees bare, where – as in all the bocage that summer – sun and rain had no respect for the bodies of men and animals left lying where death caught them. Yet the woods are thick and green again and the air is full only of the scent of meadowsweet and hawthorn. There is no menace in the sunken lanes vaulted by the hazels, or in the meadows by the stream where the blue-black dragonflies dart above the water. No snipers are in the oak trees; no “S” mines waiting in the grass.
The victory of nature has been so complete that one almost resents it for an act of irreverence. It is something like sacrilege to be able to sit here and picnic, to walk here in safety. This is Hill 112, taken and retaken at appalling cost; yet is there nothing but this stone to mark the fact? (The laburnum at the edge of the field where the British tanks were caught and burned was not planted for remembrance. The cross is for the Calvary that happened long before). Colville, Evrecy, Esquay, Tournay, Tilly – there must be men all over the world who say; “I”ll never forget that place. Never. We had a position…. ”
But they might search for a lifetime and not discover it. They might stand upon the very spot and not know it. On the beaches the tale of summer ’44 may never be lost; here it may never be found.
From the Sunday Telegraph, 7th June 1964.
The author served in Normandy with the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division.