Patrick Skene-Catling

Dangerous liaisons | 27 June 2009

Surviving, by Allan Massie<br /> The Death of a Pope, by Piers Paul Read<br /> Coward at the Bridge, by James Delingpole

Text settings


Allan Massie

Vagabond Voices, pp. 224, £

The Death of a Pope

Piers Paul Read

Ignatius Press, pp. 215, £

Coward at the Bridge

James Delingpole

Simon & Schuster, pp. , £

Surviving, by Allan Massie

The Death of a Pope, by Piers Paul Read

Coward at the Bridge, by James Delingpole

Alcoholism, with its lonely inner conflict between escapism and conscience, is an inexhaustible subject for literature. The emotional agony of addiction is fascinating, as long as it is other people’s. Allan Massie, the illustrious Scottish littérateur, has written an empathetic novel about the loneliness of the long-distance boozer, always isolated, even in the company of fellow alcoholics who try to help. Some alcoholics in desperation submit to Alcoholics Anonymous, in the hope that mutual support may ease the daily fear of lapsing.

Massie once spent several years in Rome and evidently knows the city street by street. It is the perfect venue for his novel. The central cast is an AA group of foreign exiles, struggling with cups of tea against grappa. There is a horrific crisis, brought about by a middle-aged woman writer, ‘a recovering alcoholic’, who persuades an acquitted young English murderer to come and live with her so that she can write a book about him.

Surviving is an essentially grim novel, but there are black glints of humour — the oxymoron suits the dark brilliance of Massie’s style. He provides further relief with many allusions to great and almost great other novelists, including some who were eventually destroyed by drink, such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the literary alcoholics’ alcoholic, Malcolm Lowrie. Massie aptly concludes with a celebrated line from Under the Volcano: ‘Nobody go there. Only those who have nobody with . . .’ Surviving may be an instant classic in the alcoholic literary canon.

Piers Paul Read presents a very different aspect of Rome, all the way up to the top, the conclave to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II. The schism between elderly conservatives and young radicals in the Catholic Church offers scope for a novel of fatal rivalry, and Read, with scholarly insight and narrative daring, stretches the possibilities far beyond the obvious.

The action ranges from Central America to Darfur, from the Old Bailey to a Ugandan camp for Aids sufferers, a revolutionary Coptic cell in Cairo and finally Rome. It is an expertly told, informative and exciting account of idealism and murderous fanaticism co-existing in a single laicized Basque priest. After carrying a gun for Liberation Theology in El Salvador, in Europe he seeks Sarin, a deadly, volatile poison, which he believes can end the church’s ‘cycle of senility and reaction that brings misery to the world’.

The Death of a Pope is marred by one defect. It is a thriller only up to a point. The ultimate climax fails to thrill, as it is set in recent reality. Readers, knowing that there was no devastating atrocity in the Vatican after the last Pope died and before Pope Benedict XVI was elected, will feel the tension of the plot suddenly fizzle out. If this were a story of the near future, the nail-biting suspense could persist to the end. Even so, the novel is well worth reading, and no doubt the flaw can be fixed in the screenplay.

War is an awfully big adventure, best appreciated vicariously, at a great distance in space and time. James Delingpole’s splendidly entertaining second novel of the saga of Lt Dick Coward’s Flashmanesque ubiquity in the second world war is just the ticket. Coward played a significant part in pivotal actions, at Dunkirk, in the Battle of Britain, in Burma, North Africa, Normandy and, surprisingly, Stalingrad, where he somehow found himself supposed to fight against the Russians. Usually only human, afraid and sick and not averse to scenes of a sexual nature, this hero is superhumanly bullet-proof.

What Delingpole calls his own ‘war obsessions’ have motivated extraordinarily thorough research in the strategy, tactics, logistics, personnel, weaponry, geography and weather of Operation Market Garden, which was conceived by Montgomery in a vain attempt to race Patton. Delingpole rightly calls the airborne-led attack on the bridge too far at Arnhem ‘one of the greatest disasters in British military history.’ It is fortunate that we do military disasters so well, admiring the major ones as fervently as victories.

With appropriate passion, disillusionment and the wit of men at the lower levels of the military hierarchy, he describes all the blood and guts, the noise and the people. Coward, in competition with his arrogant brother for inheritance of the family estate, crosses the River Waal in a small boat, in daylight, under fire, even more courageously than Robert Redford, and later even stops the loudspeaker of a German Mobile Propaganda Unit from taunting British soldiers with ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.’ As Delingpole praises one of the books he recommends for further reading, Coward at the Bridge is ‘war-buff heaven’. He deserves an honorary VC.