Monday, 22 August 2011

The return of an old friend

Well, if I've strayed into TV today I might as well compound the felony by adding a little literary criticism. Abe Books have kindly reunited me with a copy of John Lodwick's 'Bid the Soldiers Shoot' - I lent my last copy out sometime in the 1980s. I first read it in my late teens, then throughout my twenties. I've skimmed through pages today as familiar to me still as though I'd read them yesterday. It's Lodwick's autobiography, and if you've the taste for Telegraph obits of men who did extraordinary things in the war, you'll love it. I also realise I've been wrongly ascribing a couple of things for a decade or more; Lazlo Lazlo, born in Baden Baden in 1919 was not a John le Carre creation but one of Lodwick's fellow Legionaires in 1940. And the Heer General Order about sugar rations to balloonists issued as the Reich crumbled came not from Alan Moorehead but in a sheaf of paper given to this by-now SOE officer as bum-wipe when captured and whilst imprisoned by the Germans in Greece. The book is woven with a mixture of dry humour and pathos, and Lodwick's insights are frequently both startling and relevant today. I'll be coming back to one or two. But just to give you a flavour of the particular sangfroid and style of the thing, let me quote the following:
There was a girl in this prison. We first noticed her as she entered it. Dressed in black, she was sweeping the garden path.She could not have been more than twenty, and in fact was eighteen, as I learnt next day when, during the siesta hour, she came and pressed a bruised mouth and her black eye against the four-inch square in the door of my cell. She spoke French quite well.
'I am not what you think'
'We don't think anything'
'They killed my boy, and then they brought me here'
'All right, All right, and now they've brought us here too.'
Poor creature! The most suspicious of fools could have seen that she was speaking almost half the truth. The facts as I learned them later from the Feldwebel were not essentially different. He was, himself, essentially a virtuous man, a veteran of the First World War, who had passed the last year of it as a prisoner in England, and he was very ashamed of himself. Indeed, sometimes at night when the girl had cuckolded him with one of his subordinates, he would come into my cell, sit down on the bed and tell me about it:
'She worked in a big cafe. There was nothing wrong with her then, but there was something very wrong with her young man. Not us, but the Gestapo came to know about this, so they told her that he would be safe if she agreed to report on other people who sometimes used that cafe. Have some Raki?
'No, Chef, allow me to offer you some of my own' and I would pull the water bottle from beneath the bed. He made no comment.
'She reported on several men with the result that quite a number of them who were supplying Andartes in the mountains were arrested. So, of course, was her own young man. That is why she is here. She would not live half an hour outside these walls.'
'Can't you take her with you?' I asked him.
'What? Through Macedonia, through Serbia, Slovenia, to Austria in a cattle truck with hundreds of soldiers?' He looked at me and seldom have I seen a man so mortally struck by remorse. 'She will have to take her chance' he said.
'In that case' I answered , 'it would be better for you to give her the chance, painlessly, behind the ear, now. With the Greeks, it won't be so brief. Anyway, why can't you get her out before you?'
To that last question he made no answer, nor was any answer required. He was a family man, with six children, well considered, eminently respectable. He could not therefore ask a favour of that nature of his superiors. What, after all, did the certain death of one impressed whore matter when compared with those of the thousands who must die by bomb, by aerial rocket power, by machine gun, by partisan attack on the long and twisting road back to the Fatherland?
We received the answer to that question almost nightly, for the Feldwebel, having proved unable to substantiate his claim to a monopoly, was cast aside by the now reckless girl, and on more than one evening, when the lamp glowed a dim blue in the corridor, I saw her running past my cell in her underclothes, hotly pursued by one or other of the German private soldiers.
I hope she was killed pleasantly. That she was in fact killed is almost certain because her captors departed with us eventually, closing the garden gate carefully for her protection. She stood in the cabbage patch, and watched us leave.


James Higham said...

Killed pleasantly?

Sebastian Weetabix said...

A bullet in the back of the head, without being tortured and mutilated. Compared to some things that happen in war zones, that is a pleasant death.