In 1998, stockbroker Paul Dry decided to walk away from a successful career at the Philadelphia Stock Exchange and become a book publisher. Thank God he did.
The publishing racket, just like the movie racket, has undergone a significant metamorphosis in the last thirty years or so, with giant mega-companies swallowing up small independents like a whale swallowing plankton. The result is the plankton—the small, independent book publishers and film-makers—who choose and create books or movie projects based on quality, as opposed to potential boffo-box-office-smash-NY-Times-runaway-bestseller financial success, can these days be counted on the toes of one hand. Almost every new book you might think of buying today is published by an imprint of a subsidiary of a publishing conglomerate that is part of an umbrella company wholly or primarily owned by a German media monolith named Bertelsmann, and I can’t even begin to count all the politically incorrect jokes I could make out of that.
Fortunately, with publishers and movie makers both, there are still a few stubborn mavericks who insist on quality over profit. Paul Dry Books is one of those publishers.
Paul Dry Books specializes in reprinting long out of print and out of mind books, the kind that were “caviare to the general” even back when they were published and would be totally forgotten today but for a tiny handful of eccentrics like Paul Dry. And read by a few oddball readers like me. To this collection from the past, Paul Dry has in recent years started adding contemporary books that may not have wowed the Deutsche Mark-counters—excuse me, the Euro-counters—at Bertelsmann, but will wow the handful of people who still cherish good writing and compelling yarns.
Last September, I reviewed Tattered Banners, by Paul Rodzianko, a very personal memoir of the Russian revolution and its effect on the wealthiest, best educated, most creative aristocrats in the world. (Yes, it was a rigid and hierarchical society, with the standard ratio of good to bad, generous to selfish, caring to cruel, but it was a hell of a lot better than the grasping, bloodthirsty socialists who replaced it, and none of the royalty or aristocrats deserved what the communists did to them sophistically in the name of “the people.”) It’s that kind of intriguing and overlooked book that Paul Dry Books specializes in and Xan Fielding’s Hide and Seek is in the same vein.
How can one describe a man like Xan (Alexander) Fielding to readers in today’s world? If men like that even exist today they’re doing an excellent job of keeping a low profile, but during World War Two there appear to have been a large number of highly educated, high-spirited, urbane, multilingual, creative, courageous, imaginative adrenaline junkies, men and women both, who thrived on danger and risking their lives in appalling circumstances, and then going right back to living and partying just as hard as they could. Swashbucklers is the best word for them, male and female alike. Theirs are names you’ve never heard of: Bill Stanley Moss; Christine Granville; Patrick Leigh Fermor; Charles Henry George Howard, the 20th Earl of Suffolk; Jeannie Rousseau; Francis Cammaerts; Marie-Madeleine Fourcade; Andrée de Jongh, countless other Polish, Czech, French, Belgian, Norwegian, and Dutch resistance fighters and spies, all the unnamed and unknown men and women who risked and sometimes lost their lives fighting the greatest evil the world has ever suffered from. Xan Fielding was one of them.
The difference is that Xan Fielding (and a few of the others as well) could write (he also translated the French novel that became the basis for the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai), and Hide and Seek is his account of his time impersonating a peasant shepherd on Crete (he spoke fluent Greek) as he led a handful of resistance fighters, intelligence gatherers, and saboteurs in a deadly cat-and-mouse game against the might and brutality of the Nazis.
(And right now would be a good time to give a shout out to the Greek people. When I was thirteen, only fifteen years after the war, my father allowed me to go on an epic adventure, camping and hitchhiking with a fifteen or sixteen year-old German friend from my home in Germany, down through Austria and what was then Yugoslavia, through Greece and eventually to Crete. My friend was German; I looked German, spoke German, and wore German clothes. The Greeks and the Cretans had suffered greatly from the brutality of the Nazis for four long years, but everywhere my friend and I went, peasants, men and women both, would call out to us, “Germanski? Germanski?” and when we replied in the affirmative, they invariably invited us into their whitewashed cottages and plied us with food and drink, music and courtly hospitality. (In Crete, that hospitality and the drink included my first taste of retsina, the potent Greek wine. The results were unfortunate; I have learned little since.) But I wonder, knowing now what I didn’t know then about the murderous and ferine cruelty of the Nazis, if I would have been as kind and generous to citizens of the country that had invaded my homeland and murdered so many of my countrymen. They had nothing, those long-ago farmers and shepherds, fishermen and bakers, but they shared what food they had with us and treated as if they were delighted to have us in their homes.)
On Crete, Xan Fielding was able to pass himself off as a local peasant/shepherd so successfully that he took pleasure in brushing shoulders on the streets of villages with the very Nazis who were looking for him, knocking back drinks in taverns as SS officers sang patriotic German songs, taking the savage delight of the born risk-taker in flaunting himself under their noses.
But as wild and carefree and able as he was, one gets the sense that he was not a born warrior. In one poignant incident, he recalls for the first time hearing in one of those taverns the haunting and heartbreaking song, Lilli Marlene, “Outside the barracks, by the corner light, there I will stand and wait for you at night…” and recognizing the humanity in soldiers who were doing inhumane things. His description of having to execute a young German soldier who stumbled onto his tiny group is harrowing, harrowing and redolent of the unnamed aftereffects men were not supposed to have in those days, aftereffects he does not discuss.
And more: throughout the book, with only two exceptions, one Greek and one British, he is consistently diplomatic in his account of the men who were running the brand-new, ultra-top-secret (and greatly despised by MI6 and the regular British military Intelligence Corps) commando branch elliptically named Strategic Operations Executive (SOE). It was so hush-hush very few people even knew of its existence and those that did referred to it as “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” And that was the problem: it wasn’t nearly ungentlemanly enough. The British had no one who knew of or could even imagine the disgusting, draconian, ruthless cruelty of the Nazis, and that, coupled with the ridiculously erroneous British belief that a good pedigree and a good club membership were more important than a good brain, meant that many of the field agents and almost all the leaders were unrealistic amateurs playing by Marquis of Queensbury rules in a no-holds-barred back-alley brawl against seasoned street fighters. Couple that with the normal ineptitude of any military and you can understand why the attrition rate of SOE agents across Europe was appalling. Xan Fielding himself, on a later mission in France, was caught because he had been given papers with out of date stamps on them, and by having been issued money in the form of brand-new bills with consecutive serial numbers. What could possibly go wrong with that? He was saved, literally as he waited to be marched out to be executed, by the skill and daring and sheer chutzpah of one of the most legendary of all SOE officers, a Polish lady who was once accurately described as “the bravest of the brave.”
And this would be a good time to give a shout out to the Polish resistance fighters who were the most ferocious, most dedicated, most persistent, best organized, and most successful of any in Europe. Without the courageous Poles, it is very possible Great Britain would have been overrun and the war might have had a very different outcome. The Poles’ extraordinary and highly successful efforts were repaid at the end of the war by Churchill and Roosevelt turning their back on them and allowing over 200,000 people to be slaughtered and the ancient, historic city of Warsaw to be razed.
There were countless other courageous resistance fighters in France, Belgium, Norway, and other countries, and yes, the British and American armies performed extraordinary feats of heroism when they finally moved into action, but in the early days, no country had an army anywhere near up to the task, and it was the resistance fighters and the spies and the saboteurs who bought the desperately needed time. Xan Fielding was not the least of them.
It is axiomatic that military blunders are the norm, and that subsequent frantic efforts to cover up those blunders or assign blame are also the norm, but even taking that into account, Britain’s insistence on recruiting their so-called “intelligence” officers, even for the revered MI6, from the right schools and the right clubs and above all from the right families, resulted in catastrophic loss of life and very nearly in the loss of the war. For a hair raising account of the elite upper crust arrogance, stupidity, incompetence, ineptitude, and unwillingness to even consider a better way of doing things, read Lynne Olson’s account of the Nazi Abwehr’s Englandspiel (Nazi Military Intelligence’s “English Game”) in her book, Last Hope Island. Hell, just read what happened to over fifty SOE agents, most of them Dutch resistance fighters, sent from London to Holland to be tortured and murdered. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is not the definition of insanity; it’s the definition of stupidity. Truly, the courageous and gallant young men and women of the SOE were lions led by donkeys. Even Xan Fielding, who wrote Hide and Seek shortly after the war and long before any of this had come to light, and who really believed in the myth of the British Intelligence Service’s brilliant infallibility, even he recognized the imbecility of many of the officers in the Cairo branch that was running things on Crete, and they were geniuses compared to the pompous twits in London.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde has Miss Prism say, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”
Only Hide and Seek is not fiction.