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The Hardliners

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Corgi, London, 1972
(originally published in Great Britain by Cassell & Co)
price: 25p; 160 pages

The blurb on the back:

Colonel Charles Russell was in a dilemma. He’d retired from the Security Executive but still kept his ear very much to the ground. And he’d discovered that Sir Fenton Omerod was planning to bring out his memoirs. Sir Fenton had been ambassador to a certain European country and he had been party to its secret negotiations with the West, which if made known to the East would lead to disastrous recriminations. Charles Russell knew better than most what the tanks and troops had already done. How could the ex-ambassador be persuaded not to publish?
By the long arm of coincidence, Russell was the guest of Sir Fenton the night his host was attacked by an intruder seeking access to his papers. Going to his rescue, Russell found a pistol rammed into his back…

opening lines:
Colonel Charles Russell, lately of the Security Executive and now its grey eminence, was dining with Sir Fenton Omerod, who’d been known before his knighthood by the much less patrician name of William.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to just sketch out the back-story to this one, which – in the course of the novel – emerges much more gradually. Anyway, this is what’s happened before we start… A small East European country (let’s call it Czechoslovakia, for the sake of argument, even though it’s not named) has decided to liberalise its version of communism and has seen a military intervention by a larger country (let’s call it the Soviet Union, ditto). The world is outraged and its sumpathies are with the Czechs. What the world doesn’t know is that the Czech government was dealing with Western capitalist concerns, via the medium of the British Ambassador, which was what scared the Soviets in the first place. This knowledge would affect world opinion substantially. The Ambassador has now retired and, as we join the story, is preparing to publish his memoirs, the facts of which are backed up by his diaries, a set of journals currently located in the safe at his country home. The Czechs want to get hold of the diaries to ensure that they’re never revealed, the Soviets want to get hold of them in order to reveal them, and the British want them because they want to minimize the PR damage. Added into the mix is the Ambassador’s daughter, a journalist who wants to prevent her father doing himself any harm, and who calls in the services of a recently retired British Intelligence chief.

What results is a novel that – despite the very different tone and genre – resembles structurally nothing so much a PG Wodehouse romp. Which is damn fine by me.

What really makes the book, though, is its portrayal of the corrupted nature of modern British society. At its most obvious this is seen in a prominent member of the House of Lords, fierce in his public espousal of class war against the working class, whilst actually being in pay of Moscow, but he is the least of our worries; much more serious is the craven capitulation to the forces of mediocrity. The dominant culture is seen as one of self-serving vanity and petty weaknesses, not only in the political, diplomatic and security fields, but throughout the ruling establishment:

He was the typical Western intellectual, stuffed to the eyes with something called humanism, liberal and benevolent, poor. Not in money, he earned enough of that, but poor in all that made a man; he was poor in spirit. (p.98)

Up against this enfeebled society is the remorseless logic (tinged with superstition) of the Eastern Bloc. These are the Hardliners of the book’s title: men who, despite superficial traits, actually work to the dictates of real politik. The Ambassador’s daughter has their measure:

’I don’t believe one of the superpowers acts in the way that that one did simply for ideological reasons. There are people maybe who think like that but I don’t believe they hold the levers.’ (p.11)

But even she can’t quite fathom the psychology of a people who believe that ‘Freedom was the recognition of what was in fact necessity’ (p.112)

So how are we to defend ourselves? Can anyone be trusted to do the right thing? Well, there are exceptions to the rule, and a handful of good Westerners do emerge. One is the Ambassador’s daughter, an intelligent, strong woman who appreciates a sense of humour; another is the retired Intelligence chief, a 60-year-old who finds that even a lifetime of desk-bound command hasn’t blunted his abilities when it comes to a crisis; and a third is a working-class Labour MP, whose politics were forged in the Depression but who has ‘a vast contempt for theory’ (p.91). In this trio can still be found what might be termed the essential core of the British character. We’ll be muddling through, but as long as there are still a handful of decent, committed and above all competent people pulling some of the levers of power, a still, small voice of hope remains.

This is really tremendously good value. The writing is occasionally a bit clumsy, but the tight focus and the teasing out of every permutation is nicely done. And there are shafts of insight littered throughout. Just as one example, here’s a diplomat from the small East European country reflecting on his homeland:

His people could boast of two well-known composers, but neither of unquestioned first rank, no major painter, no writers but the depressingly earnest. They were really the Celts of central Europe, the people you pushed remorselessly westwards – Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isles. Since that hadn’t been possible they’d been quietly encircled, sometimes ignored and more often exploited, surrounded by races more gifted and gayer or simply by peoples much better at war. (pp.36-37)

Recommended reading.


from the maker of

The Doubtful Disciple