No Coward He

It’s possible I die in this book (Coward at the Bridge, by James Delingpole). I’m not sure it’s me, but a character with my surname (who gets no lines, by the way) is pictured rigidly upright in a slit trench with his head blown off.

Well, at least he’s a para, a member of the British parachute regiment, one of those doomed at Operation Market Garden, the battle many of us know from the film and book A Bridge Too Far.  

And it is true that I know the author, James Delingpole. I actually commissioned him to write a non-fiction book, Welcome to Obamaland, which remains the book on the brave new Obama-world that is our future, at least for the next four years. Every prediction James makes in Welcome to Obamaland has either come true or is coming true — his only comfort is, really, next to none at all: it can’t last forever, you know you’re right, but in the meantime, well, we’re doomed. At least he enlivens that doom with grimly funny stories about how he’s seen it all before in the British National Health Service and the Left’s attack on everything that’s right, proper, sensible, responsible, traditional, and libertarian.

Heigh-ho then, and onto another messianic leader, or team of leaders, who ruined the lives of tens of millions of people in a rather more catastrophic way than Barack Obama is likely to manage, on battlefields and death camps and malign scientific experiments that brought terror from one corner of the globe to another.    

Coward at the Bridge, the second in Delingpole’s series of World War II adventure novels, takes us from a cupboard in Oosterbeeck, Holland — “Did I ever tell you about the time I found myself locked in a cupboard with a stunning seventeen-year-old blonde nymphomaniac who couldn’t keep her hands off me? Worst moment of my life. Well top ten anyway.” (The Germans are interrogating prisoners right outside; and the girl trapped with him is psychotic.) — to a flashback of the misadventures in England that led him to the paras and nearly a dozen days of blood, shock, death, and thunder fighting the Germans in the Arnhem campaign.

The conceit of the Coward books is that Dick Coward is in competition with his snooty, celebrated, golden brother James to become heir to the estate of Great Meresby. The brothers are non-identical twins, but their father, General Ajax Coward, has a sneaking suspicion that Dick, no chip of the old, bluff block, might be a bastard who somehow emerged just before his authentic son and heir. So he sets them a competition: the estate (and possibly the hand of Dick’s lady love Gina) will go to the son who puts up the most spectacular, medal-winning performance in the war — a competition that promises to take Dick to every major campaign (including a turn in German uniform on the Eastern Front).

The first book in the series, Coward on the Beach, took Dick to D-Day; Coward at the Bridge puts him in a red beret and drops him into the disaster of Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne operation in history. As with George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books, from which the Coward books take their inspiration, there’s a fair bit of comical rogering, or near-rogering, which might be attractive for some, but for me it’s the action that counts, the bravura recreation of history, the cordite-laced mixture of comical cock-ups and bloody realism, and the pretence that the whole thing is true (the books come complete with annotations).

The narrative voice, rollicking, blunt, and brutal in Flashman, is a bit of the gentleman-everyman in Coward, with a humorous lilt: “The noise is quite atrocious. The crack and pop and whizz of the rifle shots; the tearing and buzzing of the MGs; the judder and boom and deafening blast of the 20-mm cannon and 88 high explosive shells bursting all around and about, seem to have merged into one great terrifying überdin, such as Wagner might have written for an audience of deaf people on a thundery day when he was feeling especially cross.”

I might have caught Delingpole out on an inconsequential error or two — surely Major Cook paddled across the River Waal (“the whole surface is alive, boiling, as if ravaged by a tropical thunderstorm. It hisses and spits and sputters with a malevolent fury quite terrifying when you consider that each splash represents a bullet or a twisted shard of metal.”) chanting “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” not “Hail Mary, Mother of Grace,” (need to brush up on your Catholic prayers, old boy) — but the book is a war buff’s delight complete with battle maps, a list of Allied units involved, and profiles of the leading Allied commanders, elements you don’t often find in a novel.

I can’t say I couldn’t put the book down, but when I did, I missed it. And I certainly intend to read the next installment.