Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

But What Do You Actually Do?

By Alistair Horne

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25, pp. 398,

ISBN 9780297848950

'Oh no! I'm keeping it for an officer, ' said a girl called Irma when the 17-year-old Alistair Horne made his first determined moves. A little later Horne was being trained as a Guards officer at Pirbright camp, under a troop sergeant with terrifying powers of verbal demolition, well on his way into the pants of girls. One of Horne's fellow cadets -heir to a dukedom - went to an Oxford cinema where he 'partially lost his virtue' to the ruthlessly roaming hands of 'two beefy Land Girls who molested him from either side' during a showing of Mrs Miniver. The ducal sprig was distressed by the experience, and under-performed. 'I kept thinking about Sergeant Brown, and all that stuff about "conduct unbecoming", ' he told Horne.

These two anecdotes encapsulate the red-blooded gusto of these roistering, stylish memoirs: there is stirring enthusiasm for pretty women combined with a sense of personal rules about what is unbecoming. But What Do You Actually Do? is a memoir of the Old Guard, free of self-advertisement (it would never occur to Horne that he needs to boom himself), and a thumping pleasure to read.

After the war Horne was transferred into the Intelligence Corps, and attended a training-school in Surrey with a papier-mache elm at the entrance with eyes peering out. As a subaltern of 21 he was based in Cairo monitoring Soviet satellite powers in the Balkans.

He learnt his skills as an intelligence analyst from the spymaster Maurice Oldfield, whose mental discipline and sense of fun inspired his working life as a historian. Envious outsiders would say that the Intelligence Corps badge depicted a 'pansy resting on its laurels'. Horne was conspicuously relaxed about homosexuality, and deplored the 'positive vetting' introduced after the defection of Burgess and Maclean to identify and exclude homosexuals. It caused, he writes, 'a loss of talent to the secret services comparable to Louis XIV's ill-conceived expulsion of the Huguenots from France'.

Horne read English literature at Cambridge after leaving the Guards. …

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