Eastern Approaches

Saturday 25 April 2009

Above, Walden Books on Harmood Street, Camden, London, yesterday afternoon. This was a quick acrylic sketch, reworked a bit after I got home.

Below, a book I picked up there a couple of months ago, Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean. I’d never heard of him before reading this.

The book describes his time as a British diplomat in the USSR in 1937 and ’38, when he was in his mid-20s, and goes on to tell of his experiences with the SAS in the Second World War in North Africa, Persia and Yugoslavia.

While in the Soviet Union he spent his periods of leave on unofficial travel to Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and on to Afghanistan by rail, road and foot, often with an escort of disgruntled NKVD men under orders to keep up with him. This section of the book also includes his vivid eyewitness description of one of Stalin’s show trials.

The middle part is made up of desert adventures behind enemy lines in North Africa, having escaped the diplomatic service by unusual means. He had previously tried to resign in order to join up, but was refused permission to leave. Reading the Foreign Office Regulations, he spied a way out: entering politics would disqualify him from the diplomatic service. He announced his intentions to the FO, resigned, joined up, ran for parliament, and then spent the rest of the war fighting overseas.

The final part of the book is about the last years of the Second World War in Yugoslavia, where he was Churchill’s ambassador to Tito’s Partisans. He gives some gruesome details of the extreme brutality of the war there, and of the divisions which were to re-emerge in the more recent Balkan wars. There is also explanation of the reasons for supporting Tito and the Communists over the ńĆetnics, and of his own part in the decision.

I see Marko has written a much fuller account of this period, though as a casual reader I wonder how much more detail I’d have the stomach for.

Added — a curious consequence of Tito’s postwar break with Stalin here, via Oscar.