Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Fitzroy Maclean – Eastern Approaches
I suspect that few boys have read the novels of Rider Haggard through the years and not dreamed that they would one day cross deserts, fight in battles and explore strange countries. The reality of escapist adventure though, is that it is the stuff of dreams, not normal life and the closest most people get to adventure is running for the bus in the morning.
Fitzroy Maclean however was a real life adventurer. His career reads like the mad out-pourings of a Victorian thriller writer, but in the early 1930s he had travels and adventures that seem almost impossible.
Clearly born to the better end of society, Maclean joined the Diplomatic Service with a view to serving the British Empire. In his early twenties, he yearned to visit the Soviet Union, and surprised many by volunteering to work at the embassy in Moscow. It wasn’t a popular destination and he was able to get posted there.
The first pages of the book are his fascinating account of his train journey from Paris to Moscow. Once there, he interspersed his diplomatic work with barely legal trips into the Russian east. He visits Kazakstan, Samarkand, Baku and many other famous (but by then almost impossible destinations). Along the way he dodges the Soviet agents sent to track him down, meets all manner of locals and uses every dodge he can come up with the see parts of the world few westerners could visit.
While in Moscow, during a break from his adventurers, he witnesses the final show trial, at which Stalin consolidated his power. The chapter describing the “Trial of the Twenty-One” is a must for anyone interested in socialist history, describing as it does the great lengths that Stalin was prepared to go to, in order to destroy his opponents, and the manner in which friend became victim. Of the twenty one on trial, Maclean devotes some time to Nikolai Bukharin, once a leading Bolshevik intellectual who capitulated to Stalinism. Maclean describes how Bukharin repeatedly runs rings around the prosecutor's invented stories, but is unable to break out, fearing, Maclean feels, to criticise the Soviet Union even though it had by then strayed far from the orginial socialist vision.
Few were brave enough to believe that Stalin had destroyed genuine socialism, like Trotsky argued. But Maclean shows that even when they had been completely crushed, the old revolutionary spirit could still show itself.
At the outbreak of World War Two Maclean is back in London and discovers he is unable to join the military due to his important foreign office role. Discovering a loop-hole that means he cannot remain in his post if he stands for electoral office, he resigns to fight a seat for the Tories and wins. Soon after becoming an MP he is called up for service and ends up in the Western Deserts of Libya with the SAS and the Long Range Desert Group.
Further “boys own” adventures occur, until he is plucked out of this hell hole and parachuted into Yugoslavia on the personal orders of Winston Churchill to aid and abet the guerilla forces sabotaging the German war effort there.
Maclean quickly becomes indespensible to Tito the Guerilla leader as a conduit for weapons and resources and spends the rest of the war fighting with the partisans against the Germans. He is even present with a British Jeep at the Russian liberation of Belgrade.
Fitzroy Maclean, SAS soldier, Tory MP, friend of Churchill and Tito lead a life full of excitement and adventurer. His book is a fascinating insight into the nuances of an amazing period of history, even if his ideas and politics aren’t something that I can share. I recommend it as a piece of history as well as adventure.