Let’s face it, Neville Chamberlain gets something of a bad press, all that hopeful waving of a slice of paper in the wind at Heston Aerodrome, and an appeasing speech was never going to look good, and maybe one of his colleagues should have realised that and warned him about it.
Fact is, that if we had gone to war at that time, a year earlier in 1938 than when it actually broke out in the autumn of 1939, we’d probably have been trounced five nil, what with one serviceable squadron of modern planes, complete with trained pilots and spares. That vital year gave us enough time to get (almost) up to speed, and in the end that made the difference. Just!
This book, Robert Harris’s latest novel “Munich”, centres on the hastily arranged conference in 1938 featuring our Nev of course, plus a bad-tempered Adolf, (was he ever anything else?) in need of a good wash by all accounts, if the story is to be believed - is that fact or fiction? Plus Musso and Deladier in supporting roles. That all happened sure enough, there is no denying that.
The poor Czechs were invited too but the Gestapo made sure they never left their hotel rooms. How could they possibly be included in the actual talks when it was their country that was being carved up?
One always has to be very careful when reading fiction/faction books for after a while it’s all too easy to pick up facts that are nothing more than the writer’s imagination.
Robert Harris crosses over into pure fiction by creating two twenty-somethings from pre-war Oxford Uni, Hugh Legat and Paul Hartmann, bosom pals, lover of the same girl, aren’t they always, brilliant language students the both of them, who, hey ho, turn up at the conference as civil servants/translator bods. Paul has info he desperately wants Hugh to have, though the papers and info he possesses never really comes across here as that important or earth shattering.
Robert Harris is rightly famous for his painstaking research, but there were a couple of things here that didn’t quite ring true to me. Firstly, was that really a mention of British Airways I read? Didn’t BA start in 1974, that one puzzled me, and secondly, did Neville Chamberlain really receive more raucous applause from the German public in Munich in 1938 than our (c)old mate Adolf? Really? I somehow doubt that too. Pardon me if I am being picky here.
Robert Harris is a fantastic writer, and as someone else commented, even when he is only 60% of his best he is still way better than so many of his contemporaries.
Someone else mentioned too that this is or was a sequel or prequel to “Fatherland” – it is nothing of the kind, but if you like, or are fascinated by this period of history, as so many people are, you will get something out of this book.
It’s well-written, as you would expect, has sold the customary shed loads, but there are no great surprises, and in the end it left the reader feeling kind of flat, as if there was so much more to come, but I guess you can only fiddle with history so much or you risk losing the history buffs altogether.
The writer clearly harbours some sympathy for Mr Chamberlain, and maybe he does deserve better than he gets, and as time passes by people’s perception changes. Coincidentally, this afternoon I saw a photo of Mr Chamberlain walking seemingly carefree in a London park with his wife Anne, two days before the actual outbreak of war. If only one could go up to him and say: Penny for your thoughts, Neville, penny for your thoughts?
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this book, read it quickly too, and as ever, I am now eagerly looking forward to the next one. Bonaparte maybe, Churchill even, or something more radical, like Mosley? There must be plenty of black stories still to come out of that rich seam, which reminds me, my dad was at the Cable Street riots in 1936, and most definitely he was not wearing black, though hopefully he didn’t have his RN uniform on at the time.
EXTRA – And A Correction:
Well, I should have known better than to doubt Mr Robert Harris’s research and accuracy. So let me put that straight right now. The prime minister did indeed travel by “British Airways” to and from Munich in 1938. I didn’t know it was a resurrected name when it was reintroduced so much later. Happy to set things right.