Andro Linklater

When words were scarce

Most of us are brought up not badly, but wrongly.

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Where the Hell Have You Been?

Tom Carver

Short Books, pp. 246, £

Most of us are brought up not badly, but wrongly. Trained to the tenets of Mrs DoAsYou-WouldBeDoneBy, we are easily trampled underfoot by students of the Master DoItMyWay-OrBeDoneOver school. Consider the career of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as an example of the second method of upbringing. Mercilessly whipped and humiliated as a child, he grew up self-obsessed, wilful, arrogant, and it would seem without any redeeming personal qualities. Yet it was largely Monty’s egotistic drive that made him the most effective British general of the second world war, while more sympathetic commanders like Wavell and Alexander were relegated to the sidelines.

High among the surprises of this delightful memoir of Richard Carver by his son, the former BBC correspondent, is its discovery of a little oasis of affection in the barren desert of Monty’s private life. In 1927, Betty Carver, Richard’s mother, married Monty, a then undistinguished but opinionated colonel. A widow with an unconventional lifestyle epitomised by her habit of driving her two boys around in a motorbike and sidecar, Betty devoted herself to her new husband, and for almost ten years managed to love this otherwise unloveable man for the authoritarian care he bestowed on her and her children. That he in turn was capable of some more profound emotion became apparent when she died prematurely. ‘I kissed her dear face for the last time just before the coffin lid was put on’, he confessed. ‘I tried to bear up at the service and at the graveside. But I could not bear it and I am afraid I broke down utterly. I feel desperately lonely and sad.’ Although he and Betty had had a son together, the present Viscount Montgomery, much of that attachment appears to have been transferred to Richard Carver. Writing to the boy, he shared his grief with untypical candour. ‘Our dear Mummie has been taken from us. I do not know what I shall do without her. It will be very hard for you to bear.’

Were this story less skilfully told, the light cast on Monty’s character would be its major claim to public attention. But Tom Carver has written a memoir whose subtle, almost wistful exploration of unspoken passions would not be out of place in a Graham Swift novel. Shifting between his own baffled desire for a distant father’s love to the diffident adoration his father felt for Monty, he focusses on the one remarkable event in Richard Carver’s life, his escape from an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in 1943. Since the prisoners were released on the surrender of Italy, the first stage amounted to no more than walking through the gate. The succeeding trek, however, through several hundred miles of German-patrolled Italy and a fiercely fought over battle-line was one of adventure and risk, not least to the Italians who sheltered and helped them.

In a sense that was the summit of Carver’s life, and it rightly occupies the central portion of the book. An undistinguished soldier who tried without success to be a teacher before returning to government employment, he became ‘just another mild-mannered, middle-aged civil servant’, according to his son, with ‘the slightly reserved manner of a country doctor’. But his ordinariness makes Carver a good representative of a generation that in proper DoAsYouWouldBeDoneBy fashion had learned during the war to avoid inflicting their anxieties and fears on other people in order to escape having to deal with stresses not their own. Their children, accustomed to emotional offloading, grew up bemused, even wounded, by their reticence. Tom Carver recalls joining his quiet father in the potting-shed: ‘He had no idea, I think how much I loved being in there with him. I longed to be close to him, but outside the potting shed I had no idea how to do it.’

With great delicacy, the author recounts his halting attempts as an adult to reach deeper into the past, but not even an unexpected contact from the Italian family who sheltered his father during his escape quite penetrates the veil. Thus the title of the book, taken from Monty’s brusque exclamation when Carver finally turned up at his headquarters, serves as an apt comment on his emotional absence. Yet the son has made something universal out of this silence. Monty’s triumphs, like his boastfulness, fade into the background. The real echoes of war are not to be heard in the newsreels, the bands and the commemorations, but in its unspeakable private memories.