Sleep in Peace Tonight by James MacManus (Duckworth)


“The seaplane came into view just as the winter sun had begun to settle into the English Channel.”

WOLF Hall for another era. Bring up the Brogue. We are at the court of king Winston.

Britain 1941. The empire is on its knees. Rommel is disembarking in North Africa. France has fallen. Greece is falling. The North Atlantic convoys are being decimated by U boat torpedoes. Nazi invasion is expected in the summer. The government will retreat to the Cotswolds.

Enter Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s private envoy. One of two drunken, lecherous, chain smoking Americans out to to save the known (as in understood) world in the face of the righteous Mothers of America who want to keep their boys at home and the concessionists mediating for a post war peace with Hitler. It is a western narrative, egged on by papa Churchill, big eating, big smoking, indefatigable, desperate to draw the world’s biggest democracy into war. So desperate his daughters consort to persuade ambassadors and broadcasters.

We know this take on the world war 2, but fact and fiction are blended, like in Roger Rabbit or Woody Allen mixing old film footage with modern characters. Meet Leonora, a graphic cardboard cutout with sawdust for knickers. Hopkins has not slept for three weeks. Boom! Bombs explode around them. There is an especially cartoon moment when Churchill is naked in the bath dictating policy and asking Hopkins to pass him the soap.

MacManus has an ear for dialogue and an eye for the social mores of the time. Leonora is smoking Gaulouse – they are all smoking everywhere, three or four packs a day – sourced from the French resistance. She sits “below the salt” at the high table, ie not an invitee of import.

This is another potentially great work thwarted by its please-make-me-into-a film script. The camera snatches the decisive moments of history as if they were just another cup of tea. Or in this case glass of whisky. In fact each of the main characters has a different tipple of choice.

For Churchill empire was a by-product of trade. For the American Hopkins it was imposition. But it is Churchill the warrior who sees immediately the mistake that lost Hitler the war, overruling his generals in attacking Russia on three fronts where one single sabre swing through an unbelieving Soviet shambles probably would have secured Moscow and victory in the east.

I was told it was a book about London and the blitz. It is not. The filter on the lens though is oddly Americana. It is about war correspondents shuffling between Claridges and the Savoy and drinking black market alcohol. As a Londoner I felt intruded on, although hardly any more than a peasant in Tudor England.



About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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