Magazine article The Spectator

On and off the Field of War

Magazine article The Spectator

On and off the Field of War

Article excerpt

ITIS BLISS HERE : LETTERS HOME 1939-1945 by Myles Hildyard Bloomsbury, £17.99, pp. 323, ISBN 0747578028 . £14.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

This book is a threesome consisting of a remarkably well-observed piece of social history, an erudite but easy-to-read travelogue and a personal-experience account of the second world war. For each of its components alone, it would be value for money but, as you can buy one and get the other two free, it is truly a gem.

No doubt it will be classified as 'War' and it is true this is the vehicle on which the rest travels. Even so, Hildyard is more interested in the social and sight-seeing aspects than in war, despite having fought in Crete, the Western Desert, Italy and north-west Europe.

In the beginning he is recruited to the Territorial Army by Gerald Grosvenor, the future Duke of Westminster. When his parents ask him what he has joined, he has to admit he doesn't know. Later he discovers it is the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, a cavalry formation still mounted on horseback, which was rather bad luck as he is not particularly interested in horses or riding. Later, when the horses have been set aside and he comes across the beach at Salerno to fight in Italy, he hopes to visit the museum in Naples.

Myles Hildyard's brand of social history is the view not of the aristocracy, but of the unmistakable upper class. His father is a judge, two of his uncles, though he does not tell us so, are generals, and his family home is the huge ornate Victorian pile, Flintham Hall in Nottinghamshire. The Archbishop of Canterbury is Uncle William -- Mrs Temple was a distant cousin -- but unfortunately Uncle William proved to be not very good on religion, which was a shame, as Hildyard would have liked to ask about it.

The young cavalry subaltern is amazingly well connected and knows, or easily meets, everyone. Almost everyone that is, for once in Cairo, not quite hearing the introduction, he shook Prince Peter of Greece vigorously by the hand instead of just touching it and making a court bow. He consorts with Lady Ranfurly and, for a time, even takes over her husband's servant, Whitaker. He travels about with Mary Newall, who wears a uniform of her own design and commands hundreds of girl ambulance drivers. …

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