My Country’s (and other) Finest Novelists

A meander through the mind of a book lover!               

The task was named “My Country’s Finest Novelists” but, being a iconoclast, decided to write instead of my favorite books and authors. My reasoning is simple, why limit oneself to the output of one country, when all the world’s pages are there for the reader to plunder? As a hopeful author myself (with five books finished and the sixth one under way; all unpublished, I need to add), I reckon I can tell if I’m going to like a book within the first three pages; if the author hasn’t gripped me by then, he never will!

We in the United Kingdom are particularly close to the source of all reading material, both from a technical viewpoint, and from an imaginative outlook as well! William Caxton didn’t invent the printing press, but published the first printed book in English, Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres, and we hold some of the finest authors and lyricists in the entire world as primarily British. From the first country song “summer is a-cummin in”, through the glories of Shakespeare, Bacon and Marlowe, the finely drawn family portraits of Jane Austen, the social commentaries of Dickens to the multitude of writers extant today, we have a veritable harvest from which to inform or relax within, for there are few things better than a good book to rest both mind and body!

I would like to draw the reader’s mind’s eye towards some of my own favorites such as the political and social writer Howard Spring, and his commentary on ambition named ‘Fame is the Spur; the Yorkshire industrial and mining chronicles of Thomas Armstrong, the modern political/action epics of Tom Clancy, the naval ‘Hornblower’ classics of C.S. Forrester, the action novels of Gerald Seymour , inclusive of possibly the best detailed novel about a long-range sniper ever written, the early books of Alastair Mclean, ( the later ones were rubbish!); three novels by an American named Ellis K Meacham,  and finally, my own literary hero, the books of Nevil Shute. The last named, to my mind was truly the modern giant of literature, but largely forgotten these days in favor of contemporary writers with less than one percent of his talent. His was the magic of painting, in a few sparse lines and paragraphs, a growing picture of a story which would reside in the reader’s mind, to carry that same reader along the path which was painted, and to conclude that story and painting in such a way as to ensure that the reader was always wanting more! I make no apology for my liking for this Englishman, as his writings gave me the spur to try and produce my own. His early training as an aeronautical engineer, so vividly described in “Slide Rule” gave him the grounding from which sprang his masterpieces such as “Round the Bend” and “Trustee from the Toolroom”, and the world is the lesser place for his passing in 1960.

Came across a reference in a magazine to the works of Michael Shaara, an American novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner. The novel. The Killer Angels,  which won him the Pulitzer Prize, to my mind is one of the great narrative pieces of the Twentieth Century, giving as it does, the story of the Battle of Gettysburg in a fictionalized context. The protagonists on either side are well-defined and recognized, and the battle phases are both well explained and real. It is indeed a fact that the book itself almost disappeared within a very short space of time after publication, and it wasn’t a commercial success, and so the news that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing came as a complete shock to the novelist.

His story was later filmed under the title “Gettysburg”, and was in fact re-released nineteen years after publication, but it was unfortunately once more a commercial failure! The book itself is the legacy of a writer whose life ended far too soon, mainly as a result of his lifestyle, and the world was robbed of the future work of a man who could bring to the printed page the terror, glory and carnage of the battle which turned the tide of the Civil War, and thus set on course the United States of America!

A few months back, I came across my copy of Summer’s Day is Done by an author named Robert Tyler Stevens. I first read it about thirty years ago, but it was as fresh and as good as the day I first read it! The novel is based around the friendship and love between an English Intelligence agent and the eldest daughter of the Czar Nicholas of Russia. The theme is of a man held back by traditions of class, status and position from declaring his love for the daughter of the most powerful man in Russia, but is also a total denunciation of the barbarous depths into which the revolution of the Russian people was driven! A popular cause was subverted by the Bolsheviks, and the slaughter of the whole Imperial Family, the direct result of the seizure of power by such as Lenin, Trotsky and of course, Stalin, was the straw which ended the war between the White and Red armies, as the figureheads for the White forces had been murdered!

The one passage which always stays with me comes near the end of the book, where the Englishman and his Cossack allies learn of the murders, and goes:-

“The lesson to be learned, but which we refuse to learn, is that they are all the same, heroes of revolutions. The fact that we refuse to learn, that there are always some of us who will give help, comfort and bread to the violent ones, means that the children of Nicholas died in vain!”

Some time back, re-read a novel entitled Westbound, Warbound by Alexander Fullerton, and once again realized how good a writer this man is. His writing career commenced with an autobiographical novel of his service with HM Submarines in the Far East towards the end of the Second World War, and the instant success of his first offering pushed him to write on a full-time basis. His ‘Everard’ novels, based as they were around a naval family in war were among his many polished offerings, but the novel ‘Westbound, Warbound’ is a one-off, telling as it does the story of a tramp steamer caught up firstly in the seas which embraced the final days of the pocket-battleship ‘Graf Spee’, and then to their travails whilst inching through a North Atlantic hurricane at the same time as being in constant danger of sinking! This book is about the men who brought Britain through the War by offering themselves as open targets for the U-boat menace, armed with a single six-pounder and a rationed number of shells! The men whose work, sacrifice, lives and deaths are forever remembered in the Merchant Seamen’s Memorial opposite the Tower of London have had very few books written of their deeds, partly, one supposes, that there isn’t much glamor in stories of drowning, or burning alive, or freezing to death within three minutes of your ship’s slowly sinking beneath the waves after enemy action!

The knowledge that pours off this author’s pen is from real life, from the visit to the murky Indian brothel to the descriptive passages telling of the hurricane’s onslaught in mid-Atlantic. His hero is a deck officer, doing the everyday things which are his calling, from taking a ‘star sight’ to advising an illiterate seaman about the benefit of learning how to read.  Fullerton has met men such as this young officer, and more than likely has killed very similar young men who sailed in the Japanese ships which his submarine sank in the shallow waters of Sumatra and Malaya! The novels which have been bought by the thousand telling of the fighting ships of the Allied forces sometimes forget that the slow, plodding freighters, tankers and liners have stories too, and they should also be remembered by an audience which unfortunately these days, doesn’t even know of the sacrifices which were made so that they can slouch down and watch  ‘The West Wing’ in warmth and comfort!

Casting through a pile of books brought down from the loft, I discovered a novel I hadn’t read in years, by a writer named Richard Powell. This man’s output, in literary terms, was varied and eclectic, and this particular novel, entitled “The Soldier” is typical of the man and his craft. Based in time around six months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, he writes of a professional soldier; a major who has committed the unforgivable crime of literally following orders to the letter. The fact that if he had defied his orders, he would either be dead or captured by the invading Japanese is neither here nor there; he survived when everyone expected him dead, and he is now suffering the consequences of blind obedience.

The Soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel William Farallon, is traveling to a backwater combat zone, based in the mythical Lower Pacific Command Combat Zone, and he is under no illusions as to the manner of the treatment he shall receive upon arrival, and his worst fears are born out when he discovers that his immediate superior officer is a passed-over relic whom the Colonel ruled against during a critical point in staff college war-games, thus depriving the other officer of both promotion and command! He also discovers that the commanding general was the godfather of his executive officer in his last command, the general knows he was literally the last man off the island outpost, and Farallon is, once more, definitely not the flavour of the month!

Expected to fail, and credence given to the unstated fact of his cowardice, he commences his fight back both against the Japanese and the U.S. Army, with more problems coming at him from the American Army than the Japanese! His stolid acceptance of his fate, the receipt of unfair and dangerous orders without hesitation or complaint commence the battle back to the respect due an officer. This is the story of an old-fashioned military man, forged in the dull furnace of the peace-time American Army, where promotion did not depend on when the next shell landed, and his journey back from the limbo of silent accusations of cowardice and worse! This novel, long out-of-print, is heartily recommended by this reader; if you can find a copy, go for it, you will not regret the time spent in the search!

Had a wander around my bookshelves, and came across a couple of books by Alistair McLean. McLean started off as a total unknown, but his first novel, “H.M.S. Ulysses” was to catapult him into the supertax bracket in the space of six months, and after that he unfortunately never looked back. I say unfortunately because his best work was completed within the span of his next four books, and after that, as far as this reader is concerned, he was writing and selling on his name, and producing a yearly pile of indigestible rubbish which sold because it was ’the yearly McLean’ and for no other reason.H.M.S. Ulysses’ written on the experiences which he had lived through while serving on a cruiser, hit the bookshelves and was immediately recognized as a true best-seller, something which is foreign these days when the book dust jacket already proclaims the improbable facts of ‘best-seller’ status before the event.

His narrative of a doomed warship, with a semi-mutinous crew, leading a convoy towards the harbor of Murmansk in Northern Russia, battling not only the Nazi enemy but also the ferocious onslaught of the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean in mid-winter, rang so true that when the paragraphs spoke of the waves crashing over the bow, you instinctively flinched before the spray and spume. He wove a narrative which rang true, far deeper than fiction, and told the story of the men fought and died to guard the convoys, the convoys which so far have never been honored for their service and their sacrifice, except, strangely enough, by the Russians, who issued their Soviet Arctic Region Service medals, offered by the Russians to the veterans’ organizations, but permission to wear these decorations was refused by the British Government. This mean-minded and twisted logic, typical of the Blair regime, comes strangely from a Government and a Prime Minister who is normally only too keen to be photographed close to active-duty servicemen! McLean’s book, ’H.M.S. Ulysses’ still available in print, is worth a search, as it will grip the reader new to his work, and give an insight of brave men, long dead, who died so the others might live in freedom!

I honestly and openly admit that I am an avid reader of sea and naval stories, of sail, steam and turbine, because as another author writes, “the only true enemy is the sea”, and any writing which can give the reader an insight into the ways which a naval man thinks is to be devoured. The writing must be good, but if the author knows his craft and his audience, he’s already got a sale as far as this reader is concerned.

Caught a sight of an old book, read for the first time when I was younger; it was a book named “Fame is the Spur”, by an author named Howard Spring. Another of the literary giants who colored and guided my education in reading, Spring writes of a boy from what in these days would be termed a ‘deprived’ background, whose life is formed by the friends and acquaintances of his youth; whose ruthless charge for preferment, position and power knew no boundaries which might border or slow his pursuit of ‘the gilded star’. My first reading of this work gave me a worry, because I had to go back and immediately read it once again, knowing that I must have missed some of the inner workings of the author’s mind. It is a huge book, with a grand spread of the history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a backcloth, the birth of Socialism as a philosophy, together with it’s cousin, the infant Labour Party! Political giants have walk-on roles in this intricately-worked novel which spans from a fruit-and-veg stall in a Manchester suburb to the smooth salons of political London in the twenties and thirties. Winston Churchill occupies a cameo role, as do many of the British leaders whose names resounded from the headlines of seventy years’ newspapers in this story of a political chameleon,

The central figure holds beliefs and makes decisions only to renounce them when expedient, he moves his political belief base as he senses the chance of preferment, he even moves his mother into a new home, because he fears the awful disclosure that he has neglected her, and that his family came from humble beginnings. His closest friends see his compromises, but their warnings go unhindered, as their friend swerves from one side to another in his quest for political advancement. The central figure has a rhetorical power when he speaks; first discovered when he addresses a political meeting in a chapel, but abuses this power for political profit  when he speaks before a threatened miners’ strike, in order to quell the surge of unrest for which he would have fought for in the past! Allegedly based on an amalgam of three Socialist lawyers and politicians, this book, which I personally have read many times, gaining some further insight each time; is indeed worthy of a search, but don’t expect a quick and easy read, for this is a novel which demands concentration, but gives in return another view of the rise of the Unions, of the Labour Party, and in the author’s mind, of a flawed and ultimately vulnerable hero!

I’d like to tell you of a different type of book, different because it is fact, and based around the birth of the British Royal Navy. “The Habit of Victory” by Captain Peter Hore, might be described as a biography, but a biography of a Navy is not really possible, but the author has done his best to give the life story of an Institution, one which has successfully guarded the shores, interests and people of England and Great Britain for over five hundred years! The institution of the Navee, as it was first called in the times of the first Elizabeth, bringing the existing island sailing traditions together into a force which would attack the enemies of England, wherever they might be, brought forth the Tudor equivalent of modern sporting idols; but these older idols were not silly, spoilt, overpaid fools who despise all manners and courtesies! No, the Tudor idols, with names such as Howard, Hawke, Drake and Effingham, were military men who sailed in lightweight ships, men whose crews signed on because they knew that all would be equal in terms of the dangers faced, and the cause fought for was either victory, or annihilation! The names of the heroes which appear on the pages of “The Habit of Victory” ought still to be known and listed in our schoolrooms and textbooks, but in these days when it is politically incorrect, and almost a crime to be admiring naval and military victories, it is perhaps understandable that they are virtually unknown!

The path of this history of the Royal Navy, running as it does from the destruction of the Spanish Armada to the convoy battles to support and succour Malta during the Second World War, has but a short time to linger on the personalities of the men who strode the bridges, gun-decks and wardrooms of the Fleets which sailed through the mists of British history, singling out a few of the men whose sacrifice, blood and lives were laid down for Crown and Country. The one area which is not covered except in a brief outline is the story of “The Forgotten Fleet”, when a fleet of over six hundred Royal Navy ships and support craft fought alongside the Americans in the Pacific, fighting against a Japanese military machine which had to be destroyed, because it’s leaders could not imagine the thought of surrender!

To read the book is worth the effort, because it really does remind us that Britain is still an Island nation, and we depend upon the sea for trade, food and transport. We should never ever forget that nations which are supposedly firm allies now, were in the business of trying to kill us all just over fifty years ago, and that is but a stitch in the tapestry of history. Politicians might sign great pledges of friendship, but it might be a wiser move to remember the words of an anonymous deck officer of the British Navy in Napoleonic times, who said, “Treaties are fine, but seamanship and dry powder are better!”

Warfare, ancient and modern, has always been intensely personal. From the archers of Agincourt firing against the armored knights of mediæval France, from the seventeenth-century Chinese armorer engaged in the sighting, loading and firing of a cannon to the tank-gunner seated in an Abrams turbine-driven 69 tonne tank, aiming his 120mm. rifled, laser-aimed artillery piece whilst moving through the Iraqi desert at forty miles per hour; the weapons have always been the subject of design. How easy is it (the weapon) to hold or fire? Can it be made more accurate, can it be manufactured more quickly. In all of modern warfare, there has only been one weapon and one soldier which alone retains the ability to strike fear into not only the enemy, but also his own fellow soldiers; it is the long super-accurate rifle operated by the sniper. Brought into modern times during the trench warfare of the 1914-18 war, with the sniper teams worming their way into no-man’s-land before the break of day to gain that split-second advantage over their German foe, who was attempting exactly the same in reverse, the legends grew. They lived on in the wastes of Stalingrad, where Zaitsev stalked Thorwald through the tangles of the bombed and burnt-out factories; and they live on still in the pages of Gerald Seymour’s novel ‘Holding the Zero’!

This novel, which I have just read once again, produced a new hero, but a hero which cannot speak, except with a sharp ‘crack’, cannot move, except in the arms of the sniper, doesn’t breathe, but dominates the entire sweep of this fantastic novel about a promise made forty years before, and the fulfillment of that promise by the son of the man who made it! Seymour’s hero, a haulage company’s transport manager, who had never been involved with any military endeavor in his life, takes on the awesome responsibility of giving long range support to an Kurdish uprising against the armored might of Saddam Hussein. His hobby was the use and firing of breech-loading rifles, and he had won ‘spoons’ at the various shoots run by his Association. He gains access to an experimental rifle, he receives bush and sniper training from the best of the British Army, all unofficially; he travels towards his destiny by hitching lifts on his company’s trucks; all to answer the call made by a man whom he has never met, but knows intimately, because his father told him all about his friendship with a Kurdish warrior forty years previously. The band he helps is led by a charismatic girl, who shames the ‘peshmerga’ fighters into following a mere woman, and her battles are flushed forward by the rifle, and the sniper who wields it! The ending, which is a duel between two equals, is akin to a ballet but with words instead of music, with the Iraqi army gunner, pressing forward while knowing that he is doomed even if he succeeds in killing his adversary, and the English amateur sniper throwing all his chips on one throw of his deadly dice, comprises some of the best ‘action’ writing it has ever been my privilege to read!

Whichever book you pluck from the shelves, whether to buy or borrow, be it a new book from a new author, or an old favorite to be re-visited, is always an adventure in mind and memory! Please note that I specifically do not say that my choices are those which everyone should follow, or use, or even adhere to; simply that the printed word is truly vast, and to read is to enhance your very being!