Thursday, April 24, 2008

book review - Men at Arms


When you pick up an Evelyn Waugh you expect a satirical novel that will be well written but also amusing.

Having read Helena it is no surprise that to that mix you can add some religion and with the novel starting in Italy there is instantly a Catholic feel to things that is carried through with the religious views of the main character Guy.

This is the first of a trilogy about the second world war so you pick it up half expecting the action to start from the first page. But this is before things start to happen and as the main character shuts up his Italian villa and heads for home his driver tells him no one wants war.

Once back in London there is nowhere for him to go so he has to use contacts to get drafted into to a regiment that still appears to operate on a friends and contacts basis. But this is still the phoney war and even when things start to get formal with Germany it is still all about exercises and drill for Guy and his fellow would-be officers.

But then things get suddenly serious and before Guy and his colleagues can even get there the Dunkirk escape has happened and France has fallen. They are left defending against rumours before being shipped out to the African coast. Once there they are dissuaded from taking any action. But Guy is led into attacking the coast by a mad Brigadier and that combined with accidentally contributing to his friends death by giving him alcohol in hospital lands him on a boat heading home for a court martial.

The satire is subtle with it being more about the military establishment and a certain class of people more than happy to appear in their clubs in military dress but equally as keen to keep away from any real action.

But there are two great figures in this first volume. Firstly, fellow elderly officer candidate Apthorpe. With his thunder-box, a portable latrine he used to avoid catching syphilis from fellow soldiers, he manages to provoke a battle with the officer in charge for the use of the device. Then he also manages to confuse his rank and overstep his authority on numerous occasions.

Colonel Ritchie-Hook is the other great character. He seems intent on leading his own war in a sort of bayonet charging way and in the end leads Guy into trouble for encouraging him, and then joining him on a landing on the coast that descends into a grenade throwing match. He represents the old army but also a type of attitude that is lacking in those hanging around the bright lights of London.

This does evoke a picture of London on the outbreak of war and there is also an insight into the apparent unpopularity of Catholicism very few people seem to want to worship along with Guy. Where there is humour it is directed at the system and the attitude of certain types of people. But there is also fear, buried underneath the Ritchie-Hook bravado but nonetheless there all the same.

No doubt that fear will surface in the second book. But where Waugh differs from some trilogy writers is that he does leave not just the main character on a cliff hanger – will he be court martialed – but also the entire state of the war.

Version read - Penguin paperback

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