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The Military Philosophers, Page 2

Anthony Powell

  ‘I know it’s a tailor’s war,’ he had said, ‘but I can’t afford that blue get-up. They’ll have to accept me for what I am in khaki.’

  I asked for Colonel Widmerpool.

  ‘Aye, aye, sir.’

  This old-fashioned naval affirmative, recalling so many adventure stories read as a boy, increased a sensation of going between decks in a ship. I followed the marine down flight after flight of stairs. It was like the lower depths of our own building, though more spacious, less shabby. The marine, who had a streaming cold in his head, showed me into a room in the bowels of the earth, the fittings and decoration of which were also less down-at-heel than the general run of headquarters and government offices. A grave grey-haired civilian, evidently a chief clerk, was arranging papers down each side of a long table. I explained my business.

  ‘Colonel Widmerpool will be here shortly,’ he said. ‘He is with the Minister.’

  He spoke with severity, as if some regulation had already been transgressed by too early arrival, which had made it necessary to reveal Widmerpool’s impressive engagement. I hung about. The chief clerk, like a verger distributing service papers in a cathedral before a wedding, set out a further selection of documents, adjusting them in some very exact relation to those already in the table. A naval captain and RAF wing-commander came in together, talking hard.

  Ignoring the chief clerk and myself, they sat down at the far end of the long table, produced more papers from briefcases and continued their conversation. They were followed in a minute by a youngish lieutenant-colonel, with the air of a don in uniform, who this time muttered a faint ‘good morning’ in my direction, then joined the sailor and airman in whatever they were discussing. It was impossible to remain unaware of an atmosphere of exceedingly high pressure in this place, something much more concentrated, more intense, than that with which one was normally surrounded. This was not because work was unplentiful or disregarded in our own building; nor – some of it – lacking in immediacy or drama. However much those characteristics might there obtain, this ethos was something rather different. In this brightly lit dungeon lurked a sense that no one could spare a word, not a syllable, far less gesture, not of direct value in implementing the matter in hand. The power principle could almost be felt here, humming and vibrating like the drummings of the teleprinter. The sensation that resulted was oppressive, even a shade alarming. I was still kicking my heels, trying to rationalize the sense of tension, when the same marine who had escorted myself, blowing his nose hard, ushered in Sunny Farebrother.

  Farebrother came through the door looking as quietly distinguished as ever. He was wearing on his threadbare tunic the badge of a parachutist. The qualification was held desirable for those who, in the course of their administrative duties, had to arrange the ‘dropping’ of others, usually into destinations of excessive danger. Its acquisition was not to be sneezed at for a man in his fifties. It bore out the rumour that Farebrother’s DSO in the previous war had been a ‘good one’. I was glad to see someone I knew already, but Farebrother’s arrival did not in other respects make the atmosphere of the room substantially more cordial; if anything, the reverse. In fact none of the people at the table even looked up. Farebrother himself was obviously on his best behaviour. He addressed himself to the other half-colonel.

  ‘Hullo, Reggie.’

  After this ranging shot, he greeted the rest in a manner precisely to indicate appreciation that the sailor was a rung above him, the airman at the same level, both employed in other arms of the Services, therefore unlikely to have immediate bearing on his own interests and promotion. Farebrother’s capacity for conveying such subtleties of official relationship was unrivalled. On this occasion, his civilities were scarcely returned. He seemed to expect no more, accepting his status as small fry in the eyes of people such as these. The others continued their discussion. He came across to me.

  ‘So you’ve had a move up too, Nicholas.’

  ‘Not long after your own, sir.’

  ‘Have you taken David Pennistone’s place? I expected him to be your Section’s representative here.’

  Pennistone regarded himself as rather an authority on Sunny Farebrother, often laughing about that ‘charm’ against which Finn had warned me.

  ‘Farebrother himself refers to it,’ Pennistone said. ‘The other day he remarked that some general had “ordered me to use my famous charm”. The extraordinary thing is that he has got a way of getting round people, in spite of boasting about it himself. He does put himself over. A remarkable fellow in his way. Ambitious as hell, stops at nothing. I always enjoy his accounts of his own small economies. “Found a place off Baker Street where you can get a three-course luncheon for three-and-six – second helpings, if you ask – a man of my build needs proper nourishment. It’s becoming hard to get nowadays, especially at a reasonable price.”‘

  This taste for saving money, usually to be thought of as a trait threatening to diminish an air of distinction, never seemed to detract from Farebrother’s. His blue eyes always smiled out bravely on the world. Parsimony, like the dilapidation of his uniform, the one product of the other, positively enhanced his personality – his ‘charm’ perhaps – even when you knew he was well off. Indeed, Pennistone, like others before him, took the view that Farebrother was decidedly rich.

  ‘And then when he puts on his holy face and tone of voice,’ said Pennistone. ‘A sacred subject is mentioned – the Prime Minister, religion, some high decoration – Sunny sucks in his cheeks and drops his eyes.’

  Farebrother pointed to the strip lighting with which the underground room was equipped.

  ‘Wish I could afford to install something like that in my peacetime office,’ he said. ‘What you need, if you’re going to get any work done. Can’t tell whether it’s three o’clock in the morning, or three o’clock in the afternoon. No disturbance from time. I expect you know we’re going to meet an old friend here this morning?’

  ‘Kenneth Widmerpool?’

  Farebrother laughed. Concealing as a rule his likes and dislikes about most people, he scarcely attempted to hide his hatred of Widmerpool, whom it must have been galling to find once more his equal in rank, after temporarily outstripping him; not to mention the fact that Widmerpool’s appointment was of such undeniably superior standing to Farebrother’s.

  ‘Oh, Kenneth, of course,’ he said. ‘No, I didn’t mean him. This is certainly Kenneth’s bower, a very cosy one, don’t you think? No – Peter Templer. I was talking to him yesterday about some matter in which his Ministry was concerned, and he told me the usual man’s sick and he himself would be representing Economic Warfare here this morning.’

  Templer came into the room at that moment, followed by another civilian. Sir Magnus Donners – who continued to hold his place in the Cabinet, in spite of a concerted attack for several months from certain sections of the Press – had probably had some hand in finding this job for him in MEW. Catching sight of me, Templer nodded and gave a slight smile, but did not come over and speak. Instead, he sat down with the party at the table, where he too began to produce papers. He seemed to know them all.

  ‘I must have a word with Peter,’ said Farebrother.

  He went across to Templer and said something. At Stourwater, where I had last seen him, I had been struck by a hardness, even brutality of expression that had changed someone I had once known well. That look had seemed new to Templer, perhaps to be attributed to lack of concord with his second wife, Betty, then showing herself an unassimilable member of Sir Magnus’s houseparty; indeed, so near the borderline of sanity that it seemed unwise ever to have brought her into those formidable surroundings. Templer had not lost this rather grim appearance. If anything, it had increased. He was thinner, more resembling himself in his younger days in that respect. To go through his papers he had put on spectacles, which I had never before seen him wear. While I was wondering whether I too ought to go and sit at the table, Widmerpool himself entered the room.

  ‘My apologies, gentlemen.’

  Holding up a sheaf of documents in both hands, at the same time making peculiar movements with his head and arms in the direction of the small crowd awaiting him, he looked very pleased with himself; like a dog delighted to show ability in carrying a newspaper in his mouth.

  ‘You must excuse me,’ he said. ‘I was kept by the Minister. He absolutely refused to let me go.’

  Grinning at them all through his thick lenses, his tone suggested the Minister’s insistence had bordered on sexual importunity.

  ‘Let us be seated.’

  Everyone except Farebrother and myself was already sitting down. Widmerpool turned towards me, somewhat abating the geniality of his manner.

  ‘I was not informed by Finn that you were coming here in Pennistone’s place, Nicholas. He should have done so.’

  ‘I have the necessary stuff here.’

  ‘I hope you have. Finn is rather slack about such notifications. There are security considerations here of which he may not appreciate the complexity. However, let us begin. This Polish business should not take too long. We must be brisk, as a great many more important matters have to be got through this morning.’

  The other civilian, who had entered the room with Templer, turned out to be the Foreign Office representative on this particular committee, a big fat man with a small mouth and petulant manner. He had brought a paper with him which he now read aloud in the tone of one offering up an introductory prayer. There was some general talk, when he had finished, of Pilsudski’s coup d’état of 1926, from which so many subsequent Polish complications of political relationship had arisen. I consulted my notes.

  ‘The broad outline is that those senior officers who stem from the Carpathian Brigade of Legions tend to be nationalist and relatively right-wing, in contrast with those of the First Brigade – under Pilsudski himself and Sosnokowski – on the whole leftish in outlook.’

  ‘The First Brigade always regarded itself as the élite,’ said Widmerpool.

  He had evidently read the subject up, at least familiarized himself with its salient points. Probably the knowledge was fairly thorough, as his capacity for work was enormous.

  ‘General Sikorski himself was entirely eclipsed after the coup. Henceforth he lived largely abroad. Since taking over, he has shown himself very reasonable, even well disposed, towards most of his former political opponents.’

  ‘Though by no means immune to French flattery,’ said Widmerpool.

  ‘Let’s hear something about General Anders,’ said the sailor.

  ‘He’s GOC Polish troops in Russia, I understand. How’s he doing at that job?’ said Widmerpool.

  ‘Efficiently, it’s thought – insomuch as he’s allowed to function with a free hand.’

  ‘Where will Anders fit in, if he comes over here? Will there be friction with the present chap?’

  ‘Up to now, Anders has not been a figure of anything like comparable political stature to Sikorski. There seems no reason to suppose he wishes to compete with him at that level. Unlike Sikorski – although he actively opposed Pilsudski in ‘twenty-six – Anders never suffered in his career. In fact he was the first colonel to be promoted general after the change of regime.’

  ‘Anders is a totally different type from Sikorski,’ said Widmerpool. ‘Rather a swashbuckler. A man to be careful of in certain respects. Ran a racing stable. Still, I’m no enemy to a bit of dash. I like it.’

  Widmerpool removed his spectacles to emphasize this taste for ardour in living.

  ‘The Russians kept him in close confinement for two years.’

  ‘So we are aware.’

  ‘Sometimes in atrocious conditions.’

  ‘Yes, yes. Now, let’s get on to lesser people like their Chief of Staff, Kielkiewicz, and the military attaché, Bobrowski …’

  Clarification of the personalities of Polish generals continued for about an hour. The various pairs of hands lying on the table formed a pattern of contrasted colours and shapes. Widmerpool’s, small, gnarled, with cracked nails, I remembered from school. Farebrother’s, clasped together, as if devotionally, to match his expression, were long fingered, the joints immensely knobbly, rather notably clean and well looked after, but not manicured like Templer’s. Those of the Foreign Office representative were huge, with great bulbous fingers, almost purple in colour, like lumps of meat that had been chopped in that shape to make into sandwiches or hot-dogs. The soldier and sailor both possessed good useful hands of medium size, very reasonably clean; the airman’s, small again, rather in the manner of Widmerpool’s, nails pared very close, probably with a knife.

  ‘That seems to be about all we want to know,’ said Widmerpool. ‘Is that agreed? Let us get on to more urgent matters. The extraneous personnel can go back to their own work.’

  Farebrother, apparently anxious to get away quickly, rose, said some goodbyes and left. Templer also wanted to be on his way.

  ‘I was told you wouldn’t need me either after the first session, Kenneth,’ he said. ‘None of the stuff you’re moving on to will concern my people directly and we’ll get copies of the paper. There’s a particular matter back at the office I’d like to liquidate, if I could be excused – and Broadbent will be back tomorrow.’

  ‘It isn’t usual,’ said Widmerpool.

  ‘Couldn’t an exception be made?’

  After a minute or two of sparring, Widmerpool assented ungraciously. I suggested to Templer we should walk a short way up the street together.

  ‘All right,’ said Templer indifferently.

  This exchange between Templer and myself had the effect of making Widmerpool restive, even irritable. He looked up from the table, round which a further set of papers was being doled out by the chief clerk.

  ‘Do go away, Nicholas. I have some highly secret matters to deal with on the next agenda. I can’t begin on them with people like you hanging about the room.’

  Templer and I retired. On the first landing of the stairs, the sneezing marine was drying his handkerchief on the air-conditioning plant. We reached the street before Templer spoke. He seemed deeply occupied with his own thoughts.

  ‘What’s working at MEW like?’

  ‘Just what you’d imagine.’

  His manner was so unforthcoming, so far from recognizing we were old friends who had not met for a long time, that I began to regret suggesting we should have a word together after the meeting.

  ‘Are you often in contact with Sunny Farebrother?’

  ‘Naturally his people are in touch with the Ministry from time to time, though not as a rule with me personally.’

  ‘When I saw him at my former Div HQ he rather indicated his new job might have some bearing on your own career.’

  ‘That was poor security on Sunny’s part. Well, you never know. Perhaps it will. I admit I’ve been looking about for something different. These things take time. The trouble is one’s so frightfully old. Kenneth’s sitting pretty, isn’t he?’

  ‘He thought he’d never get that job. He was in fairly hot water when last seen.’

  ‘Kenneth can winkle his way out of anything,’ said Templer. ‘God save me from such a grind myself, but, if you like that sort of thing, it’s quite a powerful one, properly handled. You can bet Kenneth gets the last ounce out of it.’

  ‘You grade it pretty high?’

  ‘Of course, it’s nothing to find yourself working fourteen hours a day at a stretch, even longer than that, night after night into the small hours, and then back again at 9 a.m. If you can stand up to it physically – get the rest of the committee to agree with what you’ve written down of their discussion over a period of six or seven hours – you, as their secretary, word the papers that may go right up to the Chiefs of Staff – possibly to the PM himself. You’ve only seen the merest chicken feed, Nick. A Military Assistant Secretary, like Kenneth, can have quite an influence on policy – in a sense on the whole course of the war – if he plays his hand well.’

sp; Templer had dropped his distant manner. The thought of Widmerpool’s potential powers evidently excited him.

  ‘It’s only a lieutenant-colonel’s appointment.’

  ‘They range from majors to brigadiers – there might even be a major-general. I’m not sure. You see there are quite a lot of them. In theory, they rank equal in their own particular work, but of course rank always carries its own prestige. I say, this possibility has just occurred to me. Do you ever come across Prince Theodoric in your racket?’

  ‘I believe my Colonel has seen him once or twice. I’ve never run across him myself – except for a brief moment years ago before the war.’

  ‘I just wondered,’ said Templer. ‘I used to have business dealings with his country. Theodoric’s position is a trifle delicate here, politically speaking, his brother, the King, not only in such bad health, but more or less in baulk.’

  ‘Musing upon the King his brother’s wreck?’

  ‘And the heir to the throne too young to do anything, and anyway in America. Theodoric himself has always been a hundred per cent anti-Nazi. I’m trying to get Kenneth to put up a paper on the subject. That’s all by the way. How’s your family?’

  The abruptness of transition was clearly to mark a deliberate change of subject. I told him Isobel and our child were living near enough to London to be visited once a fortnight; in return enquiring about Betty Templer. Although curious to hear what had happened to her, I had not asked at first because any question about Templer’s women, even wives, risked the answer that they had been discarded or had left. His manner at that moment conveyed that revelation forced on him – if anything of the sort were indeed to be revealed – would be answered in a manner calculated to embarrass. There had been times when he liked to unload personal matters; this did not look like one of them. In any case, I hardly knew Betty, at least no more of her than her state of extreme nervous discomfort at Stourwater. However, enquiry was not to be avoided. Templer did not answer at once. Instead, he looked at me with an odd sardonic expression, preparation for news hardly likely to be good.