July 03, 2009

Poor Michael Jackson. His last words were: ‘Take me to the children’s ward.’ But it was nice of the jockeys in Santa Anita to wear a black mourning band in honour of a man who rode more three-year-old winners than anyone. Mind you, I thought the great Paul Johnson was the best when I happened to tell him over the telephone of Jackson’s untimely death: ‘Was he a member of the Beatles?’ Er, well no, dear Paul, but he was in the same undignified business.

It has been said that you only ever meet the world once, in childhood. All the rest is memory. Jackson, I suppose, wished to remain a child, although from what I’ve read, his childhood was ghastly. (I never saw him perform and found him so repellent I avoided looking at his picture.) Vladimir Nabokov, on the other hand, said that the ‘kindly mirrors of future times will reflect ordinary objects’. Nostalgia combines both memory and the kindly mirrors of future times. Hence it’s my favourite. Give me nostalgia any time any day or night. I’m a sucker for it and always will be. The ghost of Harry Lime, Graham Greene’s infamous anti-hero, inspires me to see a drizzle-in-lamp-light Vienna, yet the times I’ve been to the Austrian capital it’s always been sunny and hot. But I saw The Third Man when I was 12 years old and Vienna has been dark and drizzly ever since. Ditto the Wehrmacht uniform. I saw it as a child being worn by tall, blond German officers who were billeted in our house in Kolonaki. It has remained in my mind as the perfect military ensemble. And speaking of the Wehrmacht, if I couldn’t have been a German officer in Paris 1940, being an expatriate American there would have suited me fine.

My buddy Charlie Glass has written Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation 1940–44, as good a read as you can find, especially if you like this sort of thing, which I do. Glass does not hint, suggest or preach. He has done his homework and Americans speak for themselves. I am old enough to have had many friends who spent the war years in Paris under German occupation, and now I read what I always knew to be true: for many, Paris 1940 to 1944 was a non-stop party. Another friend, Andrei Navrozov, has already reviewed the book in the pages of Chronicles, a political monthly I write a column for, and has raved about it. He mentions an instance where the all-conquering German army showed more tact than many Americans did once inside Germany four years later. A German officer is driven up to the Shakespeare and Company bookshop attracted by a copy of Finnegans Wake in the window. The owner, Sylvia Beach, refuses to sell it to him. “You don’t understand that anyhow. You don’t know Joyce.” “But we admire Joyce very much in Germany,” says the gentle officer. He then piles furiously into the military car, surrounded by helmeted troops, and is driven away. He returns in a few days only to be refused again. Glass makes no comment about this. Just the facts. I loved them.

When Patton’s Third Army occupied Bavaria, the Yanks went ape, looting a Schoenburg castle. An aunt of the mother of my children went to see the great man and—to her delight—was ushered in immediately. He was courteous and soft-spoken and told her no one would ever loot her property again—“as long as I’m in command here.” No one did. My father named a ship after General Patton, and a lucky one it was, too, and when I met his son, a one-star general up in Hue in 1972, I told him about it. ‘Give my regards to your father,’ he said, ‘but I don’t know why a Greek national did what Uncle Sam should have.’ Or words to that effect.

Patton admired the Wehrmacht because of its fighting spirit and gallantry. Antony Beevor’s book on D-Day confirms what I’ve always insisted. No one fought better than the Germans going in and on the way back. Not even the Russkies. And speaking of Germans, something disgraceful took place at Blenheim Palace last Saturday night. It was a beautiful evening, and there were 800 guests for Marina Livanos’s wedding to Andreas Martinos. Marina’s father, George, I have always referred to as the Rommel of Greek shipowners, a comparison he has repeatedly asked me not to repeat. But I will because Rommel, along with Manteuffel, Rundstedt, Guderian and Kleist, is my favourite field marshal. So there we were, in the garden about to go inside for dinner, the champagne flowing and our spirits very high. That is when my good friend Leopold Bismarck made his entrance accompanied by wild applause. Bismarck smiled and waved back to the wildly cheering throngs. He joined me and others, not realising that behind him were the newlyweds, making their first appearance. When I told Bolle about it he seemed to doubt me. I suppose it’s normal for him to be cheered, being a Bismarck and all that. But I didn’t see any French people clapping. Anyway, it was a great party in a great English palace and I had the greatest hangover ever the next day.


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