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Thursday 29 February 2024

ABANDONATI - Book review

Garry Kilworth’s 1988 dystopian novel Abandonati is a slim volume but it packs a powerful punch.

The abandonati are the street people, homeless or mentally ill, with no place to go – the abandoned ones, unwanted castaways from our society.

The blurb inside describes it as a funny and moving fable. And it is that.

Some unspecified apocalypse has left groups of people, mostly dazed and without purpose, save scavenging for food – and hopefully, booze – in a deserted and seriously damaged vast city.

Guppy is one of the scavengers and he is not particularly bright – he didn’t even know he was named after a fish – and he is an alcoholic. ‘You just forgot things. You been boozin’ so long it’s made your brain soft. That don’t mean you’re stupid, do it? Stupid is when you pretend to know everything, and don’t...’ (p32)

He soon encounters a little but cocky guy called Rupert and a big yet docile black fellow Trader.

Rupert is convinced that the rich people have escaped to another planet, leaving the ‘dregs’ behind. He is determined to construct a space ship to follow them.

There are two short italicised sequences. One shows two spacemen landing on a planet with breathable air. They walk on purple springy grass – which is spooky for me, as many years ago when our daughter was small I made up a bedtime story about a boy called Jack who had many adventures, among them walking on purple springy grass! The other sequence again features two men, army officers in a bunker, who appear to be still fighting a war... I’m not sure whether these inserts explain the apocalypse, or are flashback vignettes; to my mind they seemed out-of-place, interrupting the flow of the trio’s journey. A minor quibble.

Before long, the reader is wrapped up with trio’s quest through the devastated city, confronting violent gangs and also a friendly bunch of folk who have found a secret cache of wine in the crypt of a church. Another group they meet are travellers – and one of their women takes a shine to Guppy with amusing consequences.

All three are endearing in their own way.

Rupert has a tendency to swear – not a lot – but it is remarked upon by the gentle giant Trader: ‘You do too much swearing. It doesn’t mean anything if you do too much’ (p67) – which is so true!

However, Guppy is the core of the book, which, among other things, is about humanity surviving despite adversity. ‘Guppy was illiterate, but he could read people like books’ (p106). ‘Guppy couldn’t hold something in his mind for very long. Other thoughts kept coming in, day by day, and evicting the current owners. Guppy’s mind was not inhospitable to thoughts, but there was limited space and only one or two could remain in residence at any set time’ (p130). ‘You can’t help loving someone who makes you think you’re special’ (p131).

There are instances of gentle humour, distress, and even a poignant death – but Guppy manages to swim through it all. This is a very moving book whose characters tend to live on after the last page. Indeed, they are not abandoned. 

PS - The cover features artwork by Dave McKean. He came to prominence with covers for DC comics. My failing, but his artwork - and this cover - do not appeal to me.

Thursday 15 February 2024

THE ENGLISH LADY - book review

William Harrington’s Second World War espionage novel
The English Lady was published in 1982. It comprises three parts: 1931-1934; 1938-1940; and 1941-1942 (though the final pages are 1981).

Lady Nancy Brookeford has grown up knowing the rich and famous movers and shakers of Great Britain and the United States, including the Prince of Wales, Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt! ‘Her face was faultless, clear, smooth skin; a small nose, a small mouth with full mobile lips; large, deep-blue eyes; straight, unplucked brows... She had a reputation for being pretty and intelligent’ (p5). The family had relations in Germany, one of whom was Helmut Bittrich, a cousin, who taught her to fly when she visited that country.

Her skill as a pilot combined with her looks gained the attention of Germans, especially Nazis, not least Von Ribbentrop and Hindenburg, and in the early 1930s Göring and Goebbels. By 1934 she found herself being employed as a pilot for Lufthansa. Before long she was brought to the notice of Hitler, who seemed enraptured by her...

However, Hitler was not the only one under her spell: Reinhard Heydrich was intensely interested in her: ‘He was a sensual man – his narrow eyes wandered over her like exploring fingertips... He liked to fly, to fence, to play the violin, and to make love to beautiful women. This was the positive side of his personality. He showed a dark negative in the performance of his official duties, she supposed. Maybe she need not see that side’ (p132).

And then, when returning to England for a funeral, she is faced with a proposition she cannot refuse: to become a spy because war was imminent.

Haydrich observed ‘We have to prepare for war. To save the peace, you prepare for war’ (p183).

A phrase handed down from the fourth century Romans, perhaps: si vis pacem, para bellum. Interestingly, part of this was used as a motto by a German arms maker – parabellum guns and cartridges.

There is plenty of intrigue among the Nazi hierarchy, several of them intent on ridding the country of Hitler and then suing for peace – among these was Admiral Canaris. Nancy is often in the thick of it, all the while getting closer to Heydrich.

Two aspects of the novel create suspense and verisimilitude. The detailed behind-the-scenes behaviour of the Nazi hierarchy and the quite exhilarating flying sequences.

Certain events are touched upon, notably Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass, and Hitler’s detestation of the Soviets. Both monsters, Hitler and Heydrich, are given human faces, no mean feat, though I doubt that this will endear some readers to the book.

Any student of the Second World War will be aware where the book is leading when Heydrich is transferred to Czechoslovakia. While Nancy frequently uses the airfield at Lidice, the book does not mention this town’s awful fate.

William Harrington was a lawyer turned prolific novelist, writing a half-dozen Columbo books and over 17 standalone novels. He died in 2000, having committed suicide aged 68. 

Wednesday 14 February 2024

EXOCET - Book review


Jack Higgins’s 1983 thriller Exocet was fresh off the press roughly a year after the Falklands War and presciently deals with Argentina’s search for additional Exocet missiles, as at the outset of hostilities Argentina only possessed very few.

Brigadier Charles Ferguson is head of an adjunct to the British Secret Intelligence Service, Group Four, directly responsible to the PM. Ferguson’s top man is Major Tony Villiers in the Grenadier Guards, attached to the SAS.

Villiers is divorced; his wife was Gabrielle Legrand. They used to work together undercover. She is tasked by Ferguson with getting to know Colonel Raul Carlos Montera, Special Air Attaché at the Argentinian Embassy in London. She must find out what the Argentine intentions were regarding the Falkland Islands.

Galtieri and Dozo figure in the story, as you’d expect.

Businessman Felix Donner is successful – and an illegal arms dealer. He has links with Russia. And he is hired by the Argentinians to obtain a ship-load of Exocets, weapons that could win the war. As the weapons are manufactured in France, that seems a likely place to make a deal...

Villiers is pulled out of the Falklands – he’s part of a four-man reconnaissance team and sent to France to thwart Donner.

The story is non-stop, switching scenes and countries at a fair lick, and never lets up, in the usual Higgins manner. The relationship between the pilot Raul and Gabrielle is handled well and creates tension. Of course history tells us that the additional Exocets were never obtained.

The manipulative General Ferguson appears in other books by Higgins. Interestingly, in Port Stanley, FI, there’s a Villiers Street. Having recently read The Falklands War by the Sunday Times Insight Team (1982), it is quite evident that Higgins read this account for background verisimilitude, and uses the facts convincingly.

Editorial note:

Higgins mentions a Smith and Wesson Magnum revolver with a Carswell silencer (p3). I could be wrong, but I thought it was very rare for a revolver to have a silencer fitted. A Magnum pistol, fine.

His character Dillon’s favourite handgun is a Walther PPK with Carswell silencer...

Tuesday 13 February 2024


The Sunday Times Insight Team produced this paperback in 1982, not long after the end of the war, which was quite an achievement. The writing team consisted of Paul Eddy, Magnus Linklater and Peter Gillman, though they were assisted several reporters and researchers; participants from both sides of the conflict were interviewed.

The book contains black-and-white photographs, diagrams and maps.

On the night of April 1, 1982 the first Argentine troops landed – variously called the Amphibious Commando Company or the Buzo Tactico - two distinct military groups; depends on whose report is true. According to this book the Argentines attacked Moody Brook barracks with indiscriminate bursts of automatic fire, using phosphorus grenades and riddling each room with bullets. Fortunately, the barracks had already been abandoned by the Royal Marines. ‘The Argentine government made much of the claim that its troops had gone to great lengths to ensure that the invasion was bloodless. That was largely the result but what happened at Moody Brook suggests it was not the intention’ (p15).

According to an Argentine officer, they only used tear gas and intended to take prisoners, and only fired their weapons to alert other troops converging on Government House. (The Argentine Fight for the Falklands by Martin Middlebrook (1989)).

Mid-morning on April 2 the Union flag was lowered, to be replaced by the blue and white flag of Argentina.

Chapter 2 covers some of the diplomatic events taking place at the UN building in February. Talks had been going on for about five years or more, with no headway being made. Talk was that if negotiations got nowhere there would be an invasion in July. Also ongoing was a dispute between Argentina and Chile regarding the Beagle Channel.

Chapter 3 relates the history of the Falkland Islands and the assorted occupiers, going back to the 1500s. In 1690 English Captain Strong stepped ashore and named the islands after Lord Falkland, the commissioner of the admiralty. Frenchmen came in his wake... The poet Byron’s grandfather  sailed into a bay off West Falkland in 1765 and established Port Egmont. As it happened the French had set up a settlement on East Falkland in 1764, Port Louis. In 1767 the French sold Port Louis to Spain for £250,000. ‘Spain formally restored Port Egmont to the British – on September 16, 1771’ (p38).

In 1816 the United Provinces of the River Plate split from Spain and Argentina was born. In 1820 an Argentinian frigate took formal possession of the islands. Some argy-bargy ensued over the years, including the razing of Port Louis by the American corvette Lexington, and the establishment of a penal colony whose prisoners promptly murdered the colony’s new governor. At that point the British sloop Clio hove into sight and was mostly welcomed by the Port Louis settlers. The British raised their flag on January 2, 1833 and stayed. Argentina protested for almost 150 years thereafter, ultimately appealing to the UN whose resolution 1514 of 1960 ‘pledged to bring an end everywhere colonialism in all its forms’ (p41). The UN’s 1965 resolution pressed Britain and Argentina ‘to find a quick and peaceful solution to the problem, bearing in mind the UN charter and the interests of the population of the said islands’ (p41).

In January 1982 scrap merchant Constantino Sergio Davidoff visited the British embassy in Buenos Aires to report his intentions: the scrap metal merchant had a contract to dismantle South Georgia’s four old whaling stations (which were closed in the early 1960s); they belonged to the Christian Salvesen shipping firm in Edinburgh. The Argentinians saw an opportunity to bring forward their intended invasion, using the scrap metal issue as both an excuse and a cover.

On March 19 four British Antarctic Survey scientists were on a field trip to Leith from their base in Grytviken (comprising about 30 BAS people).  They spotted the Argentinian naval fleet auxiliary Bahia Buen Suceso anchored in the harbour. Onboard were a contingent of marines, arms, ammunition, radio equipment, field surgical kit and food supplies. The troops were led by a slim, boyish-looking man whose shock of fair hair earned him the nickname ‘el Rubio’: Captain Alfredo Astiz. (p68). Astiz was a particularly nasty character, responsible for torture and death. He landed about 50 men, some in paramilitary uniform, and raised the Argentinian flag. The BAS scientists reported this to the governor at Stanley.

On March 20 HMS Endurance, with a contingent of Royal Marines was directed from Stanley to South Georgia and authorised to use force if necessary. Three days later Endurance was redirected to Grytviken; however, two marines were landed surreptitiously to an observation post on a bluff overlooking Leith harbour and, on March 25, they noted the Bahia Paraiso arrive and disembark many troops and their equipment. They reported by radio to London via a satellite link; but it was kept a closely guarded secret – why?

MI6 had a base in Buenos Aires. ‘Every Wednesday a meeting is held after lunch time, attended by, among others, the naval and military attachés at the British embassy’ (p78). On March 24 their assessment was that something was up – naval exercises with the Uruguayan navy were not plausible, judging by first-hand intelligence from the naval bases. Their opposite numbers in the American embassy concluded that an invasion was due on April 1.

The machinations in the UN make for interesting reading as certain countries take sides. ‘Guyana, worried about the claims on her territory made by neighbouring Venezuela, was on the British side’ (p114). [And this situation is still contentious today!] Interestingly, the Russians abstained – the issue did not affect their interests. America sat on the fence initially, for Argentina supported the fight against Communism that was spreading in Latin America: ‘We’re friends on both sides,’ Reagan announced. (p115). Ultimately, the British ambassador Sir Nicholas Henderson, with the help of General Haig, brought the Americans on-side. ‘On April 30... America would be allying herself publicly with the UK. “Armed aggression of that kind must not be allowed to succeed” said the president’ (p137).

Chapter 12 – ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ – relates the travails and recovery of South Georgia and the surrender of the Argentinians based there.

The recapture of Port Stanley signalled the end of the conflict with the surrender of the Argentine forces on June 14.

There are chapters and sections on the air-battles and aircraft, the terrible loss of life, the sinkings, and the bravery on both sides. As a piece of ‘instant reportage’ it is an impressive book. Granted, after all this time, as many more facts (and books) have surfaced some of this account will have been expanded upon and even corrected. Still, it’s a worthwhile read for an overview of the conflict.

It concludes: ‘At least the war has guaranteed one thing for the Falklanders on their remote rocks in the South Atlantic. No one will ever again underestimate the dangers they face’ (p265). [Famous last words?]