Mid-East crisis triggers 1974 memory

On This Day - 5 October 1974The disaster in Lebanon triggered something in my memory, the way these tragedies sometimes do, and the undisciplined memories run away on a wild tangent…

It is October 1974. I am working at the University of Exeter when I receive an invitation from a Professor Reggie Smith at the University of Ulster to speak at a conference he is running on Australian literature. Northern Ireland is in tumult: Belfast is racked by bombings, street battles and burnings when I land at Aldergrove Airport. It is, I am assured, ‘the worst night in the worst week’ since ‘the troubles’ had resumed in 1968. But that’s another story.

Professor Reggie Smith picks me up the next day as arranged and we set off for the conference in Derry through bleak mists and intermittent whipping rain. He is an interesting bloke, Reggie. Tall, balding down to grey, fluttering wisps, running to fat round a capacious waist, he seems on first acquaintance bumbling and hail-fellow-well met, vaguely aristocratic in that stuttering, hesitant upper class way under cover of which the Poms used to condescend to culturally deprived colonials.

Sunshine, mist and rain, on our way to DerryBut Reggie has more to him than that. A brilliant cricketer in his day, he had played in Australia and was in the NSW Sheffield Shield squad. He played county cricket in England with distinction, and also first class Rugby Union. Marrying on the eve of World War II, he took his new wife to his new job in Bucharest. When, in October 1940, Ion Antonescu invited German troops to enter Romania and Bucharest was occupied, Reggie and his wife managed to leave the city minutes ahead of the occupiers. They escaped to Athens, then precariously to Egypt and finally to Jerusalem from where they returned to London in 1946 and renounced at last their nomadic and dangerous existence.

This story emerges as we drive through sunshine and shadow, mist and rain, on our way to Derry. The more Reggie fills in the details – he is a loquacious, digressive, often distracted anecdotalist, so the narrative inches out slowly and takes its shape reluctantly – the more I have the eerie feeling I’ve heard something like it before. I search my memory for whatever cues I can find to explain this sense of familiarity and suddenly it’s obvious.

‘You know,’ I say to him, risking a somewhat personal observation, ‘your story is amazing. It sounds like it belongs in a novel. Something like Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy.’ I’d just finished it and my head was full of the story. The similarities with Reggie’s experiences were amazing. ‘Have you read it?’ I ask him.

Olivia Manning - The Balkan TrilogyHe looks at me for long seconds – an alarming few moments, since we are belting along the highway at great speed and I have already noticed that he is an erratic driver at the best of times.

‘Olivia Manning,’ he says, ‘is my wife. So, yes, I know The Balkans Trilogy rather well.’

Absurdly, I feel like apologising because in that instant I understand, far more than I had when reading it, that the trilogy is intensely, sometimes nakedly autobiographical – not only in its account of their travels and escapes but also, and much more importantly, in its revelations and analysis of the strains placed upon the marriage by danger and stress, by flight and fear, and by the hero Guy Pringle’s (which meant presumably Reggie’s) tendency to heedless adventurism. It is an awkward moment but Reggie reverts to his bluff, dithering mode and we survive it well enough. He tells me that his wife would have been with him to attend the seminar but she had badly injured her hand some months ago and was still in some pain and distress. When I returned to Exeter, he suggests, I should come up to London and meet her at their flat and then we would go to the Rugby.

Some years later, I examined the Olivia Manning papers. In a letter to her close friend, Kay Dick, on 30 July 1974, Olivia Manning mentions that her hand is ‘swollen still and aches a lot.’ I didn’t ever meet her because she was still in pain and unwell when I rejoined Reggie in London. I did, however, get to the Rugby. We went to the All England trial at Twickenham on an afternoon so grey and freezing that you felt your bones might crack. Body warmth was maintained, however, by liberal recourse to one of the several flasks of whisky Reggie had thoughtfully provided. Afterwards, we went to a pub where I met some of his friends, who were all very amiable versions of Reggie, and we drank pints of warm beer in a smoky atmosphere of great and increasing bonhomie.

And that was how I didn’t meet the famous author, Olivia Manning.



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