The past is another country - unless you happen to have led one of the most colourful lives of the century. Then it is several countries. The hard part is trying to remember them
Sunday 15 December 1996
I was sitting in the big inner courtyard of the New Tiran Hotel, Naama Bay, south Sinai, drinking duty-free whisky and watching the new moon. The sky was dark blue with light behind it, not yet the real desert blackness. I had the place to myself, silence made the evening faultless. I was not thinking, I was basking in sensations of my skin. I could still feel the cool smooth water of the Red Sea from that late afternoon's snorkelling. The warm air now was soft on my arms and legs, the tiles of the paving hot under my bare feet. It is wonderful to know exactly when you are happy.
Without warning or reason, I was in a room in Gaylords Hotel in Madrid. It was winter, late 1937 at a guess. I don't know where Gaylords is; we walked there and back to the Florida Hotel in the dark. E. had been invited to have drinks with Koltzov and I was included in my tag-along role. E. was excited about this rare occasion. No one we knew in our little buddy circle of correspondents had been inside Gaylords or met Koltzov. Gaylords was known to be the Russians' hotel. Koltzov, E. said, was officially the Pravda correspondent in Madrid but really he was Stalin's man, Stalin's eyes and ears on the spot.
Koltzov's sitting-room was well and expensively furnished like any sitting- room in a first-class hotel in peacetime. It was lit by table lamps and warm. It did not look or feel like any other place I had been in Spain. Koltzov was a small thin man, with thick, well-cut, grey hair. He wore a dark, excellent suit. He had the kind of face that makes an immediate impression of brilliance, of wit, and the quiet manners of complete confidence. I thought he was 40 or so, and more French than Russian. There were a few other people. I noticed only a plump, motherly middle-aged woman, probably the real Pravda correspondent, who did the hostess's job, seeing that the vodka glasses were filled and, more important, passing things to eat, tidbits, I seem to see dabs of caviar on real bread. I cared much more about food but E. must have been overjoyed by the supply of vodka.
And there was Modesto. We were introduced when we arrived, and he had moved across the room, leaving E. to talk with Koltzov. One sentence hit me hard, though I was not listening carefully. Koltzov said: "We take Villanueva de la Mierda and they take Cordoba." Maybe it wasn't Cordoba but it was definitely Villanueva de la Mierda. How dare he, living in such singular luxury, speak with cynicism or disdain about the brave, poorly armed men fighting this war? For I believed in the cause of the Spanish Republic as I believed in nothing before or since. I did not like Koltzov, I did not listen any more and I walked away to a table which held a tray of the invaluable tidbits.
Modesto joined me. Press opinion agreed that Modesto was the most talented general in the Republican Army. He looked to be in his early 30s, tall for a Spaniard who is born poor, lean, at ease in his good body. He wore an inconspicuous, unadorned khaki uniform. He had fine dark eyes, very bright, and amused now. He was an intensely attractive man and I was pleased that he had come to talk to me, though I knew that in Spain being blonde was considered a sort of accomplishment. Seeing me wolf the little dabs of caviar he asked if I were hungry. I said: "Like every-one else in Madrid." He smiled, which changed his face from its serious, aloof expression. We were getting on happily but with no personal undertones or overtones.
E. suddenly appeared beside us wearing an ugly, shark smile, the first time I had seen it. He addressed Modesto as `Mi General', already offensive, the style in the old monarchist army. He suggested that they hold in their teeth the opposite ends of his bandana handkerchief, now pulled from his pocket, and settle this matter by playing Russian roulette since they were now among Russians, two revolvers, one bullet in each chamber. It was an amusing game, either two men died, or one, or neither. As a boor's joke it was outstanding; it managed a double insult, to me as a piece of female property, to Modesto as a thief on the prowl. My heart's desire was to kick E. powerfully, but I do not know how to kick people. Modesto did not see it as a joke, boorish or otherwise. His eyes went cold. He said, "Vamos."
Since they could hardly shoot each other among the lamps and tables and sofas, Modesto headed for the outer door, E. following. Supposedly they would pick up revolvers along the way. It was too idiotic and shaming, a fine example of E.'s talent for making scenes. Koltzov must have sensed a quarrel because he took Modesto's arm, talking fast with irritation. The words "tonteria", "absurdo", "ninos", "borracho" flicked about. He led Modesto, still talking, to a far corner of the room. E. had spoiled this party, which promised to be so agreeable, so comfortable in a warm room, and with plenty of delicious food for me. The motherly woman ushered us politely but firmly to our coats and through the entry passage into the hotel corridor. We were not invited again. We walked back to the Florida along the dark cold streets in hostile silence.
We met Modesto once more, at his front, wherever that was. By the men's clothing, I know it was no longer winter. It was unheard of to visit a general, uninvited, at his command post during an action. The form during any action was to be as unobtrusive as possible, and avoid all officers who, rightly, thought reporters a nuisance until the situation calmed down. I have no idea how we came to be there with Modesto.
His command post at the moment was a stone wall, the kind peasants build to mark out their land. It stretched along a low hill. The action was going on below. In my mind, it is only a blur of dust. We sat in a row on the wall. First there was a big, overweight, very white-skinned, balding man, in a grubby civilian shirt and trousers. He was not introduced. He could have been German or Russian, but Franco had the Germans. He was presumably a military adviser attached to Modesto's staff. Then there was Modesto, bareheaded and neat in an open-necked khaki shirt with sleeves rolled up, khaki trousers and espadrilles. He had been civil and cool to us. He was perfectly relaxed, his eyes fixed on whatever lay below us. E. sat next to him, seriously unkempt as usual. He favoured lumberjack shirts and shapeless duck trousers, with a dirty tennis visor to shade his eyes. I was last, but my memory never includes a picture of me, I am simply there.
E. was asking Modesto technical tactical questions, as of one general to another. The answers were brief. Leaning forward, I could see Modesto's face. He did not turn his head to answer E., his face impassive. I could not tell by his voice whether he was annoyed or bored. This conversation was punctuated by loud explosions. It had to be a mortar attack. I was knowledgeable about artillery, from living in Madrid, and I would have known what was happening if it were shell fire. But who knows about mortars? They give no preliminary information. They just land and explode. I assumed the men knew what these explosions, growing louder, meant and would take suitable steps.
It was creeping fire, that much I understood, as each sudden explosion came nearer. After the last, very loud, very close, the balding civilian said something harsh to Modesto; I caught, "por una mujer." Modesto laughed and lazily stood up. In fact, E. and Modesto were playing Russian roulette with mortar bombs. Neither man would lose face by moving first. Stuff the little lady and the stout civilian type, the boys had important business to attend to: their vanity. I'm sure that E. was jealous of Modesto's reputation for bravery, of his commanding an army, not merely reporting the war. But why did Modesto let himself get sucked into such nonsense? Perhaps the old Spanish obsession with honour. He had been insulted, he would now humiliate the insulter. Something like that. After more than half a century, these submerged and dotty incidents are as clear as if I were seeing them on TV. They had nothing to do with me, mine was a walk- on part.
From Madrid, my memory took me without pause to Prague. It was right after Munich, after Chamberlain waved his piece of paper and said "peace for our time," and was cheered for his evil stupidity.
A long, dark corridor in the Hradcany Palace was lined with wood benches. I suppose anyone could walk there for I had no special pass and I think I must just have been wandering around trying to get the feel of things, smell the atmosphere. I found Koltzov sitting on a bench, the only person in that corridor. He looked shrunken, all his brilliance gone. I sat beside him. He had no energy for talking and I could not stop.
I babbled the nightmare news of Barcelona, a whole city starving to death. In the children's wing of the big general hospital the wards were filled with beautiful small children wounded in the daily air raids. Languid, silver Italian planes flew very high and casually dumped their bombs anywhere, everywhere. The children were silent, none cried or complained. There were also the children wounded by hunger. Four-year-old tuberculars. An adorable little girl, maybe two years old. She laughed when the nurse picked her up, laughed with joy at the game when the nurse held her up high. Her legs were limp as rope, this pinkish rope dangling below a swollen belly. I tried to talk about their eyes, huge and dark, and how they followed the clanking trolley that brought their food. Twice a day, always the same. Soup that was only hot water with a few green leaves and a few slivers of grey meat floating in it, and a small piece of bread, war bread, made of sawdust or sand.
The roads along the coast from Tarragona had become a sluggish human mire, carts, bicycles, prams, but mainly people trudging with heavy bundles. The smallest child who could walk also carried some family possessions. The old walked, too. The Moors were advancing and the soldiers of the Republic were fighting in retreat. These refugees were a new sight of war. No one had yet seen such a thing, thousands, tens of thousands of peasants, moving away from what they had always known to nowhere. They were exhausted and must have been deeply afraid but they were silent, too. No one talked, wept, screamed, cursed God and man. They were casually machine-gunned if the Germans felt like it, the Germans had the fighter planes, but this beaten army of refugees was hardly worth the trouble, the bullets. Too much pain, I said, nameless, helpless millions. Who cares about their pain?
Then my editor sent me from Barcelona to Czechoslovakia when the Czech Army mobilised. I told Koltzov it had been like a fiesta. The fine army in high spirits, with their splendid equipment, rolled along the roads to take up position in their fortifications on the border. The people lined the roads and cheered them and threw flowers, and the soldiers sang and waved. In Prague the mood was sober and determined. The nation was united, ready to defend their admirable state, no matter what it cost. The marvellous feeling of will; no panic about Hitler. They counted on themselves, their armaments factories, their iron and coal, their wheat. They were practical, steady people and they did not believe that Hitler was some kind of invincible superman. Now the awful silence was beginning here, the silence that was the sound of doom, and fear where there had been none.
I was talking fast in French, our only common language, and I don't know whether Koltzov was listening. He sat hunched over, staring at the floor. He said it was pointless to stay here longer. He took me to dinner in a small, bleak, workers' restaurant, not his sort of place. When the heavy bowls of soup were served, he began to talk. He had been waiting in that corridor in the Hradcany for four days. He came with a message from Stalin for President Benes of Czechoslovakia. The message was that if the Czechs would fight, the Soviet Army and Air Force would join them at once and until the end. Troops, tanks, artillery, planes, everything. It was the third and last chance to stop Hitler. The Rhineland, Spain, and now here. The last chance; they could do it if the Czechs would fight.
Benes would not receive Koltzov. He would not send a deputy to relay the message. He ignored Koltzov, he left him sitting in that public corridor without even the courtesy of a spoken or written rejection. The Czechs should have fought. Benes was a decent man but fatally wrong for that time and place. He failed his people.
Koltzov was tired and hopeless. He foresaw everything exactly as it happened. We despaired further over thick, greasy food. Then we shook hands on a dark street corner and said goodbye.
I don't know when I heard that Koltzov had been shot, the bad news messenger. It was not a rumour, it was reported by a friend of Koltzov's mistress, Maria Osten, a German with long, almond-shaped green eyes. She had gone to Moscow to try to save him or bury him.
Here my memory cut off, closed down, blanked out. I was back watching the brilliant new moon. Memory must be structured on dates. There can be no coherence or sequence to it unless it is anchored in time. But I have no grasp of time and no control over my memory. I cannot order it to deliver. Unexpectedly, it flings up pictures, disconnected with no before or after. It makes me feel a fool. What is the use in having lived so long, travelled so widely, listened and looked so hard, if at the end you don't know what you know?
! This article first appeared in the `London Review of Books'. The next issue of the `LRB' includes Alan Bennett's 1996 Diary. To subscribe tel: 0171 209 1141
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