Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Book Review - Four studies in loyalty by Christopher Sykes

Four studies in loyalty by Christopher Sykes, introduction by David Pryce-Jones

London: Century Hutchinson, 1986            ISBN 0712694587

This book was originally published in 1946, and reprinted in 1947; it was a bestseller, and deservedly so. A collection of essays that in the main are unconnected, except that as the title suggests, they explore the concept of loyalty, looking at it from several directions.

The first essay explores the concept of loyalty to a person, loyalty to an institution, and the abuse of power, and abuse of loyalty. Writing about his namesake and Uncle, who became a good friend of Crown Prince Edward, Sykes describes the degradation and penury that the elder Christopher's friendship with the Prince reduced him to, which at times makes painful reading.

This essay looks at the loyalty to a rank or an institution despite, not because of, the individual that may hold that rank or lead that institution. Sykes capacity to withstand constant degradation from the Prince, and to send himself bankrupt in support of the Prince's frivolous lifestyle, were due to his overwhelming loyalty to the institution of the British Monarchy.

The other side of the coin is the Prince's behaviour to Sykes - not showing any respect for his person, and failing to realise when he was putting his friend under financial pressure and then failing to do much to help when he was told by others about Sykes' situation. The picture of the Prince shows how a position of absolute power corrupts even friendship: when there is no way to respond properly to a friends misbehaviour, then there can never be true friendship, and in this case the loyalty flowed mainly in one direction.

The remaining three essays dwell on people that the author knew pesonally; the first being the seemingly preposterous figure of Bahram Kirmani. Sykes meets him in Isfahan, where Bahram has become a guide to the recently opened (to infidels) mosques, and a friend of the English. Bahram claims to have attended Balliol College at Oxford, and to have met and mixed with the best and brightest of English society in the 1880s. As his story unfolds, he also claims to have been to and lived in Russia, and lived the high life, until he hit straightened times and returned to Persia. His almost outlandish attachment to all things English made him somewhat a figure of fun amongst the expatriates in Persia, and Sykes himself along with others did some digging and found that Bahram had not in fact studied at Balliol, but in Russia, and had at most spent several weeks in England. But, the idea of Balliol and England had overtaken him, and his loyalty to what was in fact a fantasised image of England is the nub of this essay. When the English departed the Persian scene on the ascent of Reza Shah, Bahram's fortunes sunk even lower, as the Anglophobe Shah persecuted anyone seen as a friend of the English. Bahram turned to drink, and Sykes and others arranged for him to be sent money (the undercurrent of all these four essays, although Sykes is too modest to highlight it, is the loyalty of Sykes himself to his friends, family, and those who helped him).

Sykes had occasion to return to Persia during the war as part of the British invasion force, only to run into a Bahram who was in much better circumstances than Sykes expected. Sykes suspected that Bahram had succumbed to the blandishments of the Germans and was in their pay, but hears a story told by another that while indeed the Germans did try to get him onside, he rebuffed them, to his disadvantage, to stay loyal to his idea of England. Bahram's response to the German attache ("I am surprised that you are so foolish as to make such a suggestion to a Balliol man.") is the high point of the essay, and indeed of Bahram's life.

Persia (and Bahram) links through to the next, longest, essay in the book. Sykes writes about his good friend Robert Byron, author of such works as The Station and The road to Oxiana (which I have reviewed here). In fact Sykes was Byron's travelling companion through Persia and Afghanistan when he was gathering the raw material for Oxiana. Byron was tragically killed when the ship he was travelling on was torpedoed early in the War, and Sykes sets out here a criticism of his published works, a criticism enlightened but not coloured by their close friendship - his note that The road to Oxiana has trouble with its pacing is spot on, for example.

He then follows with a description of the man, in particular how he very early grasped the danger posed by Nazism, and how he unshakeably took on all comers in an effort to get Britain to take the threat seriously and face up to their tyranny. He notes Byrons wry acknowledgement of the absurdity that he was at one with someone like Churchill, and how he got into bed with the Communist movement because they too were fighting Hitler in the 1930s. Sykes shows him to the end committed and loyal to the fight, and to the preservation of the English way of life. One can only speculate on what Byron might have achieved had he survived the War, and it is clear that Sykes missed him very much.

The last short essay is not about an individual, but about the French people of the Vosges mountains, where Sykes and his SAS team were based, behind enemy lines, in the last half of 1944. He describes their courage, both physical and mental, and their loyalty to the ideals of freedom and France. He finds himself constantly amazed that the locals, all of whom knew of him and his men, and the Resistance fighters with them, never gave any information to the Germans, even when it meant the Germans burnt their homes and carried them to a concentration camp. When he went after the War to thank those who helped the cause, in general they would not accept any medals or official recognition for what they had done. In what is a magnificently written book, Sykes admits here that "I have not the command of language to express the admiration I feel."

I came apon this book almost by chance, and almost didn't open it before I passed it on. I am so glad that I did take the time to read it. Highly recommended.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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