BOOK REVIEW / Deep in hot water and cooking the books: 'Tyrants and Mountains: A Reckless Life' - Denis Hills: John Murray, 19.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
DENIS HILLS is usually remembered as the 'British lecturer' who featured nightly on news programmes in the mid- Seventies, when under sentence of death for insulting Idi Amin. His autobiography reveals that there is a lot more to him than that; anyone with a detailed knowledge of his previous life would not have been surprised to find him falling foul of Uganda's 'village tyrant'.

His early years make him seem like a middle-class Fitzroy Maclean, if we substitute British Council for the Diplomatic Service and Poland for Yugoslavia. After Cambridge and early travels in Germany and Poland, Hills was with Olivia Manning in the Council at Bucharest in 1939-40, then evacuated to Cairo; although he was in a reserved occupation, he itched to get into action (again like Maclean), was commissioned and served in North Africa and Italy, where he took part in the battle for Monte Cassino.

It was immediately after the war, while he was screening displaced persons and suspected war criminals, that his career first became controversial. In his account of the provenance and credentials of the Ukraine Galician Division, Hills admits that very stringent criteria were drawn up for repatriation to the Soviet Union - criteria that clearly established most of the Galicians as guilty of treason - but that he ignored even those; his secret agenda was to give carte blanche to anyone who claimed to be a refugee from the Soviet Union, for whatever reason.

He actually uses the expression 'cooking the books' and adds: 'The fact that I was deceiving my own authorities by doctoring the lists gave me an unpleasant feeling.' To be fair, this was done in the spirit of the times. Having sacrificed the innocent with the guilty in 1945, Britain now took the view in 1947 that it was better that 100 war criminals be allowed to go free than that a single innocent should suffer.

Hills is devastatingly honest about all this, and candidly admits that he tore up the rule book to become judge and jury entirely in terms of his own prejudices and predilections. He believed in giving the benefit of the doubt to all refugees, even to Zionists engaged in blowing up 'our boys' in Palestine. He was instrumental in letting the refugee ship Fede leave La Spezia for Haifa, even though the Jews on board had 'broken every rule in the book'. For this quixotic act he was rewarded years later by being portrayed in Leon Uris's Exodus as the blimpish chinless wonder Major Hill.

Demobbed after three preliminary hearings for courts-martial - because of his unorthodox attitude to orders - Hills then faded from the history books until the Amin affair, living a rover's life in Austria, Germany, Turkey and Iran. The accounts of his travels are always absorbing, especially those of skiing in the High Alps, but what one most admires are his stoicism, lack of pride and utter integrity.

At the age of 40 Hills worked as a navvy in a German labouring gang to pay for a cycling trip from the Rhine to North Cape; in his seventies he was still living and behaving like a student - tramping around Europe penniless, sleeping on floors or in Land Rovers. In the Sixties he made a new career for himself in Africa, as a teacher in the newly independent countries, but was always too much the lone wolf to fit in easily. Xan Smiley's prediction that he would end up in a cooking pot almost came true.

In short, Denis Hills is a Peter Pan, and his determination never to 'grow up', with its implications of mortgage and family (both his wives left him), has had some unfortunate side-effects, notably in the right-wing ferocity of his unreconstructed Cold War views. On the credit side, Hills is contemptuous of materialism, lives in a bedsit at the age of 79, and has always been prepared to work hard to earn the money for his travels. We need more men like him, and with his spirit. His courage has never been in doubt; now it is celebrated with becoming modesty in this fascinating and affecting self-portrait.