Magazine article The Spectator

Myth-Maker at Work

Magazine article The Spectator

Myth-Maker at Work

Article excerpt

THE IRREGULARS: ROALD DAHL AND THE BRITISH SPY RING IN WARTIME WASHINGTON by Jennet Conant Simon & Schuster, £18.99, pp. 391, ISBN9780743294584 £15.19 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

It is a curious fact, not enough appreciated, that the qualities which make men successful entrepeneurs -- imagination, courage, energy, ambition and so on -- can be nearly useless in politics, diplomacy and war.

Thus, William Stephenson, a rich Canadian businessman, was set up in New York (or set himself up) as one of Britain's leading intelligence agents during the second world war. His principal achievement, for good or ill, was his contribution to the establishment of the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. 'Wild Bill' Donovan was a close friend. He got a knighthood for his services, and a medal from the Americans, but he was never satisfied with either the recognition he received or the record of his rather humdrum activities as The Man Called Intrepid (after his wartime telegraphic address). Starting in 1945 he spent the rest of his life (which was long) fantasising about his services and feeding tall tales to gullible scribes. He had longed for the world of John Buchan and deeds of derring-do; since all he had attained in reality was a large office-suite in the Rockefeller Center (his predecessor had been content with a cubby-hole at the British consulate) he invented freely. It is doubtful if sober historians will ever succeed in correcting his fantasies effectively, so avid is the reading public for thrilling spy stories.

The latest victim of his yarn-spinning is Jennet Conant, an American freelance who makes a good living from books about what she calls the secret history of the second world war (she has also written on Robert Oppenheimer and Los Alamos, for example). She writes extremely badly: her grammar, syntax and vocabulary are as slovenly as her mental processes, but her real defect is the lack of any training in documentary criticism. Thus she makes extensive use of the archive of Charlie Marsh, another romantic businessman (a Texan) who hovered hopefully in the antechambers of wartime Washington, always hoping for a job in the government and never getting one. …

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