Pan MacMillan, 1997. 351pp
ISBN: 0 330 35298 9
Apart from Hugh Massingberd's wonderful compilation of anecdotes in his introduction, this book is far less funny than the first Daily Telegraph Collection of Obituaries which celebrated eccentric lives of all descriptions.
Massingberd tells us of the rich supply of "tales of dash and derring-do" which came his way during his time as Obituaries Editor on the Daily Telegraph, and of his determination to give departing members of "The Breed" a decent send-off. "The Breed", of course, is admirably defined in Alan Bennett's tongue-in-cheek description of this pure, true, sinewy product of the British Isles in Forty Years On, which Massingberd quotes.
This book, then, is a collection of some of the send-offs Massingberd's team devised. As such, it is a catalogue of courageous, determined, talented and sometimes eccentric men and women, most of whom saw war service of some kind in wars ranging from the Boer War and the Spanish Civil War to the Korean War. There are spies, missionaries, resistance workers, flying aces, sea-dogs, adventurers and escapers, and also the models for James Bond and Q. Quite a few of these people are well known from the books and films which have been made of their lives and adventures, and many of their lives read like ripping yarns. But above all, these people were determined survivors.
A psychologist might have an interesting time trying to determine what made these men and women unique. Many of them were born in India and many of the men began their military lives in the Indian Army. Not a few were the product of the British class system whose upper-class members assumed authority and trained their sons and daughters for positions of leadership and public responsibility. Some were women who learned their resilience battling powerful men who considered "petticoats" should neither fight nor vote but "go home and sit still". Others just knew there was "a job we had to get done".
There is a pattern of resistance to mindless authoritarianism and rules and, on the authorities' side, a remarkable tolerance of individuality. Obviously war-time conditions had something to do with this. Who, these days, could be "celebrated for his leopard-skin flying helmet" like Wing Cdr. Willie Fry, or be able to authorise their own wing-tip "beat-up" of their mother's London home, as did Monique "Aggie" Agazarian?
A psychologist might also note that many adventurers found retirement impossible. Some could not adjust to civilian life. Others, like aviator and designer Sir Thomas Sopwith, never stopped being leaders and innovators; or like Eleanor Strugnell (Granny Struggles), following their chosen calling, even when it meant cadging lifts on motor-bikes in Chile at the age of 90 in order to carry on her teaching and missionary work.
"The Breed" have been given an honourable, affectionate and sometimes gently irreverent send-off in these obituaries. Whether they were the last of their kind remains to be seen.
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