Latest Readings - Clive James (2015)

War Leader

IN THE COURSE OF a lifetime’s intake of books about the leading figures in World War II—having been born only a month after it started, I have always felt that those years were the beginning of my schooling—I somehow didn’t get round to reading General Sir David Fraser’s biography Alanbrooke. I should have. It is not only well written, it is well judged. That second quality is important because the hidden hero is Churchill, and anyone writing about the war from the British angle must have the critical scope to see that although Britain would not have survived without him, the war would have been lost if he had been left to himself. Churchill needed a lot of handling, or he would always be off on some wasteful scheme; and his handlers were a special breed. They had to respect his spirit, but if they couldn’t rein in his wilder plans, they were useless. I probably won’t feel the need to read Lord Ismay’s memoirs again, but I can remember that I was full of admiration for the bravery, common sense, and efficiency of Churchill’s chief military assistant, a normal man who learned how to serve a genius.

Alanbrooke, by Fraser’s account, was of the same stamp. He started from a privileged background, and was lucky, in the First World War, to be an officer of artillery rather than of infantry: the death rate was much lower. In India there was always polo, but Alan Brooke (as he then was: he didn’t become Lord Alanbrooke until after World War II) was so well connected that he could still pursue his shooting and riding when he got back to England, where those hallowed aristocratic activities were a lot harder on the pocket. Capable as well as clubbable, he went steadily upward into the higher ranks until finally he was C.I.G.S. (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), where he was just in time to help save his nation from the potentially deadly combination of Nazi barbarity and Churchillian enthusiasm. A clear, logical speaker—with the sole drawback that he talked too quickly, especially for the Americans—he would fearlessly read Churchill the riot act. For a subordinate to fearlessly contradict his boss, it helps if he is not afraid to lose his job: the chief advantage of having been brought up well-off and well placed. Even the Americans, normally suspicious of toffs, were impressed with Brooke, although they didn’t like the sound of that word “Imperial” in the title of his job. But for the nonce, the British and the Americans were not at loggerheads about their plans for the future: they were brothers in arms in the present, and if D-Day can be counted as a triumph for one man, that one man was Brooke. He made sure that the potentially explosive combination of Eisenhower and Montgomery remained potential.

One of the secrets of his plainspoken dominance—in the office, he always expressed himself in the minimum of words—was that he was secretly a master of improvised talk, and at the dinner table he would let the secret out, charming everyone present. Since he had spoken French before he spoke English, he could disarm even the Free French leaders, who were always apprehensive that they might be patronized. A star talker doesn’t necessarily have to be a mimic, but a surprising number of them are. (I have no gift for mimicry myself, but wish I did.) Reputedly, Brooke’s mimicry was perfect. I wish I could have heard it.

In my time I have been lucky enough to share a table with Peter Bogdanovich, whose mimicry is so accurate that he doesn’t need to be funny: he is, but you would be riveted even if he weren’t. Kingsley Amis was a great mimic. Having heard him many times in his later life, I can well believe Philip Larkin’s story of how his future friend, when they first met in Oxford, staged a gunfight with what sounded like real guns. Kingsley’s son Martin can do it too, although I notice that he has been wise enough never to do it for journalists, who would manufacture reams of copy with such evidence of his multiple identity, etc. I once spent two weeks filming a television special about Mel Gibson, and he would not be drawn into revealing even a hint of his ability to “do” the voice of any male film star since sound came in. This knack was famous among his friends, but in front of my camera he wasn’t going to give away the magic. He was right, of course. Half the secret of public life is not to blur the image. Gibson wanted to be thought of as an actor, not as a vaudeville turn; just as Alanbrooke wanted to be thought of as a soldier. Short of manpower and money, always building the wrong tanks, Britain in World War II was lucky in its senior officers; the traditional military caste, for the last but most crucial time in the nation’s history, came through with the goods. It should be added, however, that by the time of the Falklands War the armed forces were being ably led by “the boys from the state schools.” It had been Churchill’s phrase, coined during the Battle of Britain: he had foreseen the future, and guessed that it would work.

But during the war, the British forces, with the possible exception of the RAF, had toffs at the top. In view of that fact, it remains remarkable that the Americans so smoothly accepted the alliance. A lot of the bonding happened between Churchill and Roosevelt, but the next level down was the crucial one, and on that level it was a sheer fluke that the very American George Marshall and the very British Alan Brooke could have talked strategy together without grasping each other by the throat. Helping them reach harmony was the stroke of luck by which the Americans themselves thought the Germany First strategy was the way to proceed, so the British didn’t have to sell them the idea: they were already working on it. But the whole business of a joint command that operated on both sides of the Atlantic simultaneously is an inspiration to read about, because it shows what democratic nations can do when the chips are down. Lately I have been reading what I would guess to be the best book on the subject (it’s a theme that nearly all the military historians have taken a crack at): Masters and Commanders, by Andrew Roberts. Of the book’s many virtues, the most important is that the author knows how to bring the four main characters alive: Churchill, Roosevelt, Marshall, and Brooke are all there, at least three of them acting more strangely than you might have imagined. But if Hitler and Tojo could have put together a team like that, the world would have been lost.