Michael Alexander

Soldier, writer and adventurer
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The Independent Online

In his youth, Michael Alexander seemed a perfect example of the "Romantic Englishman". He was endowed with exceptional good looks, distinguished himself as a soldier in the Second World War, became a well-known writer and adventurer afterwards, and aged into wisdom and benevolence.

Michael Charles Alexander, writer: born London 20 November 1920; editorial director, Common Ground 1946-50; editorial director, Oxford University Press 1950-51; married 1963 Sarah Wignall (one adopted daughter; marriage dissolved); died London 19 December 2004.

In his youth, Michael Alexander seemed a perfect example of the "Romantic Englishman". He was endowed with exceptional good looks, distinguished himself as a soldier in the Second World War, became a well-known writer and adventurer afterwards, and aged into wisdom and benevolence.

Yet he was only half-English - his mother was Dutch. Antonia van Geermans and her sister were two beautiful Dutch girls from a patrician family who came to London in the 1910s to "meet quality Englishmen". They succeeded, marrying two English officers, one in the Army and the other in the Navy. Antonia's husband Charles Otway Alexander rose in the Navy to become a Rear-Admiral. Their son Michael was born in 1920.

He was educated at Stowe, and afterwards at a crammer to prepare for the Navy, although he failed the medical test for the Navy on grounds of "weak lungs" following pleurisy, and went to Sandhurst instead. After six months the war broke out and he was commissioned into the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry Brigade (DCLIB). Early in 1940 he joined the Commandos, and after a few weeks training he went with his unit to fight in North Africa.

Michael Alexander had many narrow escapes from death before being captured behind the German lines in 1942. Charged with murder, for having blown up a tank in which a German soldier had been killed, he was about to be shot. But Alexander spread the rumour that he was the nephew of General Harold Alexander, the new Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in North Africa, and the Germans feared reprisals if he were killed. The stratagem worked, and Alexander was sent to Colditz as a hostage, where he spent the remaining three years of the war.

Later he wrote, jointly with his friend and fellow Colditz prisoner Giles Romilly, The Privileged Nightmare (1952), reprinted in 1975 as Hostages at Colditz. The success of the book set Alexander on the path to become a writer.

After the war he worked for a while at the War Office, then joined a friend in business. But his heart was not in it, so he travelled round the world, then worked in various publishing houses, before settling down to a life of travel, adventure and writing.

His Off Beat in Asia, published in 1953, was about "the belly of the bear" - Russia's long frontier in Asia. Next came The Reluctant Legionnaire, the account of an escape operation he mounted with the writer Nicholas Mosley (Lord Ravensdale) to rescue West de Wend-Fenton, a friend who had joined the Foreign Legion on a coup de tête. In 1958 he published The True Blue, which told the story of Fred Burnaby, a 19th-century soldier and adventurer whose portrait by Tissot at the National Portrait Gallery had first attracted Alexander's attention.

It was followed by Mrs Fraser On the Fatal Shore (1972), the story of an Englishwoman who was shipwrecked in Australia in 1836; Omai: noble savage (1977), about a young man brought back from the South Seas by Captain Cook; and several other books. His eclecticism and originality made each of his books unique. Their range included a literary anthology on India, a book on Hogarth's engravings and the biography of Duleep Singh, Queen Victoria's Indian protégé, who "gave" her his family diamond the Koh-i-Noor.

In 1963 he married Sarah Wignall, a talented English rose who was steadfastly devoted to him through his peripatetic life. The marriage was dissolved 10 years later, although they remained friends until her suicide in the 1970s.

Because of his appetite for life and adventure, he wrote sporadically - in between books he embarked upon other, heterogeneous projects in a variety of fields. In the 1970s he started the Woburn Safari Service, and with Michael Pazel led hovercraft expeditions in Yucatan and the Upper Ganges. Later with his friend Richard Frere he circumnavigated Scotland in a small inflatable boat, a voyage of 500 miles. Having enjoyed their arduous experience, they established a race, taking place every few years, and Alexander became President of the British Inflatable Boat Owners' Association.

In 1983 Michael Alexander opened the Chelsea Wharf, a restaurant on the river in Lots Road, Chelsea. It generated much publicity and was at first filled with Alexander's famous friends and acquaintances. But he was not a businessman, the daily drudge of running a restaurant appalled him, and, after the novelty wore off, he gave it up.

Michael Alexander's last work was an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's 1969 novel Ada for the cinema. It was "optioned" several times by various producers in Europe but, as usual in the industry, the film never materialised. Recently it had been bought by an American producer, and although Michael knew he would not be there to see the film, he had the joy of knowing that this time the project would be fulfilled.

Michael Alexander's reputation as a "ladies' man" belied genuine kindness and generosity. His goodness and loyalty won him a huge number of friends who remained devoted to him until the end of his life, while he followed Dr Johnson's injunction and kept his friendships "in good repair".

Shusha Guppy



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