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Caroline Jackson on P. C. Wren, Slightly Foxed 82

Desert Daring-do

‘Seriously?’ said the obstetrician as she departed the delivery room. In fairness, she had just delivered our firstborn, for which all is forgiven. The happy news was only marginally eclipsed, therefore, by her reaction to our new son’s name.

In our innocence, my husband and I had wanted to spare him from being anyone’s namesake, so he wasn’t called after the jovial jazzman Digby Fairweather, the bobsleigh legend Digby Willoughby or any of the Dorset Digbys. The truth was, my bump had been nicknamed Digby and when the day finally came, we couldn’t ditch it. Years later, however, it feels time to acknowledge another spark for what we were then persuaded was a vaguely left-field choice. It was a late great-aunt who confided an abiding admiration for P. C. Wren’s Beau Geste (1924) and gave me her copy, adding, spryly, that she’d always held a torch for Digby in particular.

I knew enough of Beau Geste to know it wasn’t for me. A Boy’s Own caper of desert derring-do and running away to join the French Foreign Legion, it was jingoistic, anachronistic and much-parodied. This latter quality, had I thought about it, might have been a clue. While aware of several screen adaptations, I was more familiar with the recurring flight of fancy it inspired in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, in which Snoopy, complete with legionnaire’s cap, re-imagines his kennel as the novel’s besieged Fort Zinderneuf. Less encouraging was the ‘Carry On’ version, Follow that Camel. What I didn’t expect to discover was that Beau Geste is disarmingly modern in its sensibility and as witty and subversive as it is enthralling.

The novel begins as a sinister mystery, a vivid and protracted traveller’s tale of an abandoned desert outpost peopled by corpses, before wrong-footing the reader entir

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‘Seriously?’ said the obstetrician as she departed the delivery room. In fairness, she had just delivered our firstborn, for which all is forgiven. The happy news was only marginally eclipsed, therefore, by her reaction to our new son’s name.

In our innocence, my husband and I had wanted to spare him from being anyone’s namesake, so he wasn’t called after the jovial jazzman Digby Fairweather, the bobsleigh legend Digby Willoughby or any of the Dorset Digbys. The truth was, my bump had been nicknamed Digby and when the day finally came, we couldn’t ditch it. Years later, however, it feels time to acknowledge another spark for what we were then persuaded was a vaguely left-field choice. It was a late great-aunt who confided an abiding admiration for P. C. Wren’s Beau Geste (1924) and gave me her copy, adding, spryly, that she’d always held a torch for Digby in particular. I knew enough of Beau Geste to know it wasn’t for me. A Boy’s Own caper of desert derring-do and running away to join the French Foreign Legion, it was jingoistic, anachronistic and much-parodied. This latter quality, had I thought about it, might have been a clue. While aware of several screen adaptations, I was more familiar with the recurring flight of fancy it inspired in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, in which Snoopy, complete with legionnaire’s cap, re-imagines his kennel as the novel’s besieged Fort Zinderneuf. Less encouraging was the ‘Carry On’ version, Follow that Camel. What I didn’t expect to discover was that Beau Geste is disarmingly modern in its sensibility and as witty and subversive as it is enthralling. The novel begins as a sinister mystery, a vivid and protracted traveller’s tale of an abandoned desert outpost peopled by corpses, before wrong-footing the reader entirely. A second opening is set some years earlier in an Edwardian country house in Devon, from which a priceless sapphire is stolen. It’s here that we meet, as children, the orphaned Gestes: twins Michael (adored as ‘Beau’) and joker Digby alongside younger brother, and narrator, John. At Brandon Abbas, they’ve enjoyed an idyllic upbringing in the care of enigmatic Aunt Patricia (wife to the ‘universally hated’ Sir Hector) and in the company of ‘sparkling’ cousins Claudia and Isobel, plus ‘ghastly’ Augustus. Apart from baiting the latter, it’s all wholesome games (sometimes a bit bloody but that’s generally the point – upper lips stay stiff ), brisk repartee and respect for one’s elders. The brothers wash their hands before meals, are loyal to a fault and honest as the day. Then the ‘Blue Water’ goes missing. Shades of The Moonstone and so far, so melodramatic. There’s a tongue-in-cheek brio behind every earnest pronouncement, irresistible pun and facetious aside. Only when the brothers, all for one and one for all, take to the hills in short order does the ring of irony become more insistent. Last to leave is John, torn between newfound love for Isobel and fraternal loyalty. He deduces that both Beau and Digby have joined the French Foreign Legion and where they go, he follows. Perish the thought that any of them could be suspected, let alone guilty, of theft. It’s already a puzzle wrapped inside a thriller inside a quest, and the adventure has barely begun. Beyond the fact that Beau Geste’s author, Percival Christopher Wren, was born in Devon in 1885, took a degree from Oxford (at St Catherine’s Society, reserved for students too poor to study at one of the university’s constituent colleges) and worked for the Indian Education Service from 1903, biographical details are meagre. His only recorded military service amounted to six weeks as a reserve officer attached to the 101st Grenadiers, Indian Army, during 1915. There’s no record of his joining the French Foreign Legion. His familiarity with the minutiae of that hellish regime remains obscure – a remarkable imagination is clearly involved – but there’s slim chance of going AWOL once you’ve committed to his account. And you’re in for the long haul because Wren was prolific. John’s journey from Exeter to Algeria is as much picaresque Bildungsroman as deferred gratification for the excitements ahead. Developing a robust talent for survival and breezy tolerance of squalor, he is rarely less than ‘decent, fair-minded and reasonable’. That said, by contemporary standards, his attitudes are occasionally eyewatering. At such moments – in one scene John pawns his valuables to a grotesquely caricatured ‘child of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ – the temptation to look away is still no match for mordant wit and sheer narrative drive. Arriving in Paris and near penury, if not exactly down and out (‘a two-franc dinner and a glass of vin ordinaire – probably très ordinaire’), John decides it is money well spent to scrub up before signing up. He visits a barber whom he proceeds to pump for information about Algeria and is obliged with fulsome details:
‘[a] wonderful achievement and the world’s model colony . . . always growing . . . This excellent pénétration pacifique to the South . . .’. ‘They do the pacific penetration by means of the bayonets of the Foreign Legion mostly, don’t they?’ I asked. The Frenchman smiled and shrugged.
Clean-shaven, if not absolutely convinced of the cause, John nevertheless hastens to the recruiting office and enlists. For five years. On a halfpenny a day. ‘There seemed to me to be little of Liberty about this proposal, less of Equality, and least of Fraternity,’ says John. On the other hand, anyone who didn’t like the offer could leave it, and there was no deception – on the enlistment placard at any rate: ‘I read the notice through again, half hoping that while I did so, someone would come and ask my business, some sound break the heavy smelly silence of Glory’s cradle.’ Things go as badly as you would hope. Embarking at Marseilles, John is disabused of any lingering romantic illusions:
‘All good légionnaires go insane . . . We call it le cafard. The cockroach. It crawls round and round in the brain, and the greater the heat, the monotony, the hardship, the overwork, the over-marching, and the drink – the faster goes the beetle, and the more it tickles . . . Then the man says, “J’ai le cafard,” and runs amok, or commits suicide, or deserts, or defies a Sergeant . . . Terrible . . .’
John, thankfully, was born for gauntlet-seizing. The trick will be good Arabic. Learning this is no mean feat and Wren, fascinatingly, takes pains to convey how difficult it is. Meanwhile, observing the rule that says one’s first friends are often one’s best friends, he soon meets three hardboiled Americans, similarly indentured. Bo, Buddy and Hank seem crude and cartoonish until it’s abruptly apparent that if the joke’s on anyone, it’s on the English:
‘How did you know I was English?’ I asked as he stared thoughtfully at me. ‘What else?’ he replied, deliberately. ‘Pink and white . . . Own the earth . . . “Haw! Who’s this low fellah? Don’ know him, do I?” . . . Dude . . . “Open all the windahs now I’ve come!” . . . British!’ I laughed. ‘Are you an American?’ I enquired. ‘Why?’ he replied. ‘What else?’ I drawled. ‘“Sure thing, stranger”. . . Don’t care who owns the earth . . . Great contempt for the effete English . . . Tar and feathers . . . Stars and Stripes . . . “I come from God’s Own Country and I guess it licks Creation” . . .’ The American smiled.
Unsurprisingly, the brothers are reunited before advancing together, from fort to fort. The mystery of the missing jewel accompanies them, motivating a motley crew of antagonists just as much as it maintains suspense. Their arch-nemesis is Colour-Sergeant Lejaune, a vicious but subtle sadist who presides over Fort Zinderneuf. A mutiny against this oppressor allows Wren further scope to scrutinize the complexities and contradictions, already hinted at, of unexamined principles. Seeing nothing but ‘a choice of beastly deaths’, John and Beau (Digby has been posted ahead) appear more exercised by the dilemma of whether to stand by their friends or their (adopted) flag, a pose that is either lunatic or, Catch-22-style, deeply sane in the face of insanity. Pressed to commit, John coolly observes: ‘Probably the most puzzling and baffling thing to a tortuous mind is simple truth.’ Then all bets are off. Fort Zinderneuf is attacked and survival is everything. This battle is as much psychological as physical. It initiates further gruelling adventures which conclude – after a heartbreaking nod to Captain Oates’s famous self-sacrifice only a decade earlier and a superlative twist – back in Devon, both mysteries solved but the Golden Age gone. Beau Geste was published only six years after the Armistice and the senseless slaughter of a generation. That same year, E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India impugned the assumptions of empire even as Mallory and Irvine were making their heroic but unsuccessful attempt on Mount Everest. Abrahams and Liddell each won Gold at the 1924 Paris Olympics but it was also the first time Britons had three prime ministers within a year, including the country’s first Labour premier, Ramsay MacDonald, at the helm of a minority government. Insecurity was outpacing glory, and the world was changing. Beau Geste is no reactionary tribute to values increasingly discredited as vainglorious and reprehensible. On the contrary, with its ambivalent tone, persistent knowingness and ambiguous title, it offers a wry and nuanced take on a world in flux. The Gestes come to judge others by their actions and according to their lot in life rather than by any blunt characteristics of race, rank or religion. Their sense of humour, or sense of proportion, is indefatigable. I feel the moment’s come to claim that namesake.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 82 © Caroline Jackson 2024


About the contributor

Caroline Jackson lives and writes in Cambridge. When it comes to running away, she’s more likely to choose the circus than the Foreign Legion.

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