Book review / Riddle of the human envelope

Erskine Childers: Author of 'The Riddle of the Sands' by Jim Ring Murray, pounds 19.99
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There are books which it is impossible to read without developing a liking for their author, and The Riddle of the Sands is one of them. Like John Buchan or Robert Louis Stevenson, Childers doesn't just tell a thrilling tale; he conveys through it a moral code that he does the reader the compliment of assuming to be a shared one. We come away from Greenmantle, Kidnapped or The Riddle the better for them; even today, when courage is out of fashion and few authors dare to assume that their readers could have heroic aspirations.

This highly unusual quality makes it particularly shocking to learn that 20 years after writing it, Childers himself was shot for treason by the leaders of the infant Irish Free State. The course of events which led Childers from a clerkship of the House of Commons, through courageous service in both the Boer War and the Great War, to gun-running into Ireland and life on the run, is, as his biographer Jim Ring points out, itself the stuff of a first-class thriller.

In the heat of the moment, Churchill said of Childers that he displayed ''deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth''; John Buchan's more considered judgement was that ''no revolution ever produced a nobler and purer spirit''. Churchill, whose own career Jim Ring sketches in as a fascinating contemporary counterpoint to Childers's own, later recanted, describing Childers as ''a great patriot and statesman, with whom, however, I had disagreed on everything".

Childers, who had an English father and an Irish mother, was orphaned at the age of six, and went to live in his uncle's great house at Glendalough near Inniskillen. But he went to Haileybury and Trinity College, Cambridge, and soon found his way into the Imperial civil service, not least because his cousin, Hugh Childers, was Chancellor of the Exchequer. As both father and brother to his much- loved sisters, he needed to earn a living; but he also pined for action.

He found it in service in the Boer War, which also produced his first book, In the Ranks of the CIV, an edited version of his letters home to his sisters: recognisably an apprenticeship in a style that came into its own in The Riddle of the Sands. This, published in 1903 to instant acclaim, was the fruit of his own intelligent and informed appreciation of the growing threat of German naval armaments and another kind of adventuring: sailing Vixen, a 30-foot converted ship's lifeboat, down the Channel, across to France, off the Frisian islands and into the Baltic. Its self- effacing but highly competent hero, Arthur Davies, is quite recognisably Childers himself.

The burning question of the decade before the war was not, however, Germany, but Irish Home Rule, and Ring convincingly explains the local progression which took Childers from an unorthodox respect for the Boers' desire to be free of imperial interference to the belief that Ireland deserved its independence as much as the former American colonies had done. His sudden marriage to the passionately pro-Irish Bostonian Molly Osgood turned the high-minded loner into part of an unstoppably effective team.

The rest followed like nemesis in ancient tragedy. Childers played a hero's part in the setting up of the Royal Naval Air Services in the war, and was a valued adviser to the War Cabinet: at one moment, because of his knowledge, it might have been the Frisian coast rather than Gallipoli on which British forces were launched to turn the Germans' flank.

But after the war the Irish question recurred in spades. Childers, by then an Irish MP, was at the heart of the 1921 negotiations, but steadfastly refused to compromise his conscience. He joined the IRA, and fought a propaganda war with a travelling printing press. Once captured, he was executed with indecent haste to general vilification, suspected - with a bewildering absence of logic - of being an English agent provocateur. But he did not die in vain. Fifty-one years later, his eldest son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, became President of the Irish Republic.

Evidently driven by a deep respect for his subject, Jim Ring has written a marvellously rich and readable book. He is by no means the first to attempt a biography, but because he uses so much of Childers's own writing to explain his life, he brings out both the intense - arguably unreasonable - sense of purpose of the man (''The older I get the keener I get about things,'' he wrote in 1909) and the warm ''human envelope'' that made him so loved by those closest to him.

To understand Childers, it is necessary to understand a good deal about both Irish and Imperial history, and it is to Ring's credit that he informs his readers thoroughly while wearing his learning lightly. To be objective in such a context is all but impossible, but Ring offers clear-eyed criticism without dousing the spirit of his hero. ''If there was ever a man who justified the phrase 'the courage of his convictions'," he concludes, ''it was Erskine Childers.''