July 30, 2009

ON BOARD S/Y BUSHIDO—Here are some rules of the ocean: always establish the direction of the wind before undoing your flies at sea; never go to sea without more books than days you plan to be afloat; keep in mind that new romances on board last on average less than a week. For now, let’s stick to books, as I have four loos on board and also the mother of my children. The latest literary count is four down, two to go before I hand over Bushido to my son JT and his latest flame, the great-granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway. Love Child by Allegra Huston, Chaplin’s Girl by Miranda Seymour, D-Day by Antony Beevor and Death of the Wehrmacht—the German Campaigns of 1942, by Robert M. Citino. I know, I know, too much Wehrmacht makes young Taki a bore, but I do have my obsessions, and Keira Knightley, martial arts, Ashley Judd, classic sailing boats and the deputy editor of The Spectator are some of them, along with the dear old W.

Citino is one of the world’s most eminent military historians, and he writes on Kulminationspunkt, the culmination point at which offensive actions falter, and the further the troops advance, the more rapidly the decline happens. Every offensive operation carries within itself the probability of its own destruction, and at some point the initial superiority of the advancing side begins to wane. Only a good commander recognises the culmination point and consolidates his position. Needless to say, many variables are in play. In the Wehrmacht’s case, the Bohemian Corporal, as Rundstedt called Hitler, ensured defeat by overrunning the culmination point and by refusing to pull back to more defensive terrain.

General Carl Wagener, chief of General Staff for the XXXX Panzerkorps, wrote that “if the leadership can only count on the valour of the troops, then it has done something wrong.” The Bohemian madman counted more on individual gallantry than on supply lines, and he abandoned the Panzerarmee at El Alamein where the Allies enjoyed an overwhelming superiority in men, tanks, planes, trucks and artillery. The Wehrmacht’s fate was sealed long before Stalingrad and Alamein, thanks to the socialist idiot back in Berlin.

After Citino’s theories, Beevor’s account of the Normandy campaign’s slaughterhouse was painful reading. The Bohemian Corporal orders General von Schlieben to defend Cherbourg to the last man for absolutely no reason at all—swimming for it was the only way out—and when Schlieben disobeys and surrenders, General Dollman commits suicide in shame. A German Landser tells a buddy he has lost two brothers in Russia, and the superiority of the enemy in terms of men, material and total supremacy of the sky makes him reluctant to fight. Yet fight the Germans do, counterattacking at every opportunity, with the great tanker Michael Wittmann of the 101 SS Heavy Panzer Battalion losing his life in the closing battle. Stirring stuff.

After that, a change of pace was as necessary as a change of islands. Allegra Huston, Viscount Norwich’s daughter out of wedlock, writes well about the discovery of her real father, and is an obviously nice woman. Yet her well-written opus left me cold. Coke-sniffing rednecks, even her so-called dad, John Huston, make for depressing reading. Mind you, Miranda Seymour’s Chaplin’s Girl more than made up for it. It is the life of Virginia Cherrill, the most beautiful girl of her time, an American beauty who married Cary Grant and the Earl of Jersey, but who finally loved only one man, a poor Polish fighter pilot. Cherrill was so vividly enchanting everyone sought her friendship. After her original success in City Lights, she remained as unaffected and as sweet as she was when it all began back on the farm. No film has ever communicated emotion with such poignancy as the closing seconds of City Lights. The final moment of recognition of the tramp by the once-blind girl has to be the biggest tear-jerker of all time. And it was la Cherrill’s first film and first acting role ever. Her cast of friends was a name-dropper’s dream. The Maharajah of Jaipur, Jai, was among the best-looking men of his generation, a terrific polo player and sportsman whom I played against back in the Sixties. Virginia and Jai had a long affair, and even after Jersey and she got married the affair continued. Cherrill was up-front about it. She told his lordship (a real cheapskate, who left his mother, brother and sisters without a penny) she did not love him but he insisted on marrying her. Laddie Sanford, another friend of hers, was also a friend of mine. He once asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I was 19. Play a bit of tennis, travel, chase girls, said I. “Bravo,” he said beaming, “that’s the stuff; none of that nine-to-five crap.”

Yep, those were the days. And the book is all about those enchanting, carefree days before we all became equally boring and vulgar. Virginia gave it all up for a penniless Polish flying ace, which is par for the course. Rich cheapskates are a dime a dozen. Flying aces are not. Read this book and cry for the romantic times that are no more.


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