I read the first hundred or so pages of Eight Hours from England quite quickly, and then I went back and read them again. Anthony Quayle’s novel requires you to invest time in it to get most benefit. That is not to say that it is a ‘difficult’ book: it reminds me very much of Rogue Male with its vivid account of personal challenge. Unlike Household’s unnamed character, Quayle’s man, John Overton, is not going to ground in his home county of Dorset: Overton is placed behind enemy lines in a land he does not know and where danger comes not just from the official enemy but from the crossfire from a civil war. But Overton is in many ways in the right place. He’s volunteered for this gig to distract himself from a breaking heart and over-heating army boots and he gets to use all his charm, cunning and bravery.
This is, in large part, a wartime adventure. Quayle’s account places us alongside Overton. We’re hiding in caves and crossing mountains. There’s danger and there’s bravery. We get to think about how we might handle the situations and the people. And Quayle is excellent at letting us in to Overton’s thought processes. He spells out to his men the consequences of killing or not killing a German reconnaissance party. He talks about what to do when you can’t trust the people in front of you. We trust his judgement as he tries to build bridges between the various players. (He is unsympathetic towards the Albanians – which is perhaps understandable – but he is uncurious too which is a function of the time in which Quayle is writing: for most of Quayle’s contemporaries, Albania, though just ‘eight hours’ from England would have been as Other as you could have got.) But we get more – and I guess that’s why this novel has been chosen as part of the Imperial War Museum’s Wartime Classics series. Towards the end, Overton himself goes through a period of self-criticism in which he denies that this has been adventurous at all:
Instead of adventure there had only been a long tale of effort, and discomfort, and…failure.
In among the stalactite-dodging we had better not have forgotten the long, grinding out of some kind of strategy to deal with warring guerrillas and venal farmers. The thing is, without historical knowledge, we don’t know whether Overton’s mission was a success. We are told his story, not that of those around him. Yet we don’t really know whether he was a success in the role – we think he was, as I’ve written above, but we can’t be sure. This ambiguity is something that makes this novel especially appealing.
A few minutes before considering his self-assessed failure, Overton touches upon what for me is a major part of wartime tactics: how do you decipher clues that might open up the enemy’s thinking, or be a double bluff, or not be a clue at all? Overton kills a spider, only to be surprised by the consequences:
It seemed to be an occurrence all of meaning and yet meaningless.
Not a bad phrase for a classic war novel.