Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Spy on the Luce: The Irregulars by Jennet Conant

The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant

To begin, let me just say that I am sapped, utterly sapped, after watching the Dodgers lose game 4 of the NCLS in the most heartbreaking manner possible. If I'd turned off my television/radio combo (Vin Scully on the radio, Fox announcers on mute) after the sixth inning, I'd honestly say it was one of the best ball games I'd ever seen. But then, it all just went to pot, and I am totally pinning this loss on Joe Torre, who pulled the smokin' Hong-Chih Kuo for absolutely no good reason.

Now that is off my chest, I am going to put on a brave face, and talk about this lovely book.

Roald Dahl wrote extensively about his wartime experiences, especially considering that he was invalided out of the RAF very early in World War II and saw little combat. However, it was in Washington, D.C., where Dahl was stationed as an attache for the British Embassy, that his writing career got its start.

Dahl hated the Embassy, hated the work, and hated his boss, the British pastoral relic, Lord Halifax. However, he quickly discovered that he liked the United States a great deal, and quickly began to move in powerful and influential circles thanks to his new-found mentor, the newspaper magnate Charles Marsh. As Dahl was a newly published writer, and cut a fine figure in his RAF uniform, he found himself in a position to befriend a variety of Washington insiders.

This brought him to the attention of William Stephenson, aka Intrepid, director of Britain's shadow embassy, the British Security Coordination (BSC). Since 1940, Stephenson had engaged a number of British agents inside the United States in an effort to encourage U.S. involvement in the war both by disseminating propaganda to foster sympathy for the British plight, and to discredit prominent isolationists like paranoid Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.

By the time Dahl came on board with the BSC around 1943, its most important work had already been accomplished. Still, alongside agents who included Ian Fleming, David Ogilve, and Noel Coward, Dahl managed to make a mark. He befriended Eleanor Roosevelt and Vice-President Henry Wallace, among others, and in fact, lost the very first paycheck he ever earned from a story in a poker game with Harry Truman.

In addition to Dahl's powerful friends, the BSC was not above extracting intelligence through some good old-fashioned pillow talk, and set Dahl's dashing good looks to the task of seducing isolationist Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce (whose name I always enjoy saying in the voice of Mr. Burns).

Reporting back to base on that affair, an apparently exhausted Dahl complained, "That goddam woman has absolutely screwed me from one end of the room to another for three goddam nights." Quite reasonably, his superiors told him to lie back and think of England.

It's bits like these (and there are plenty of them) that make The Irregulars such a delight to read. Conant manages both a thorough and complex narrative of wartime Washington, and a wicked, gossipy scandal sheet of social gaffes and misdeeds.

It's awfully interesting, and awfully fun.


Brady said...

You know, I too am full of blargh after that game, but it's nice to get a sense of the real disappointments that come with Dodgers fandom. Up until now, they've all been little heartbreakers - this is the first real killer of a loss since we moved here lo those years ago.

So, much like after that little lane-changing incident on the Harbor Freeway made us real Angelenos, that game seared the mark of the Dodgers into our souls, as it were, making us Real Dodger Fans.

It is like The Velveteen Rabbit, if the Rabbit inexplicably threw batting practice to the Skin Horse instead of shutting him down with inside pitching.

So tonight I say, with real conviction for the first time after four years of following the Blue:


Brady said...

Also, I couldn't resist snagging this quote, which says it so well:

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

raych said...

Sounds smashing!

Linkmeister said...

You know, I've heard Yankees fans say for years that Torre mismanaged the bullpen, but since they won a lot, I never took them too seriously. After that disaster, I know what they mean. Beimel should have been available to pitch to Stairs, and Kuo shouldn't have been lifted in the first place. Wade had thrown 33 pitches the day before.


And poor Broxton. Let's hope he doesn't begin to suffer Niedenfuer's disease (Ozzie Smith one day, Jack Clark the next. 1985.)

mary_m said...

Here, here! I couldn't have said it better.