Barbara Hilliam, Truant - Paul Atterbury on George Millar, Slightly Foxed Issue 19

Great Escapes

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At various times in my life, from my twenties to my fifties, I planned to travel through France by boat. As real life gradually rendered the achievement of this ambition ever more unlikely, I took to reading in a random way books by people who had done it. About twenty years ago I came across a large paperback called Isabel and the Sea. I knew nothing about it or its author George Millar, but I consumed it greedily, loving every word. It was the classic ‘through France and across the Mediterranean by boat’ book. Later, I tracked down and consumed equally greedily all the other books that George Millar had written, most of which were then out of print.

This was the perfect introduction to a remarkable man, whose life seemed to reflect so many of my own enthusiasms: country life in all its meanings, boating and sailing, France, the landscape, chance opportunities. In addition, Millar was clearly a man of great charm and an elegant writer whose books seemed to underline a fundamental belief, namely that history is about putting the pieces of the jigsaw together and making sense of the missing bits without the picture on the lid.

Isabel and the Sea is a multi-layered love story, at the heart of which is Truant, the rather stocky and practical craft in which the Millars made their voyage from austerity Britain to Greece in the challenging climate of 1946. It is also about a long love affair with France which had carried George Millar to Paris as a journalist in the 1930s, when he became a fluent French speaker, and through his extraordinary time as a successful Special Operations Executive agent in 1944 in the east of the country (an affair that was to continue into the 1950s as the setting for various sailing adventures). Most important, it is the story of the love between the Millars, newly married and, in effect, undertaking a long and gloriously escapist honeymoon.

The voyage was a great adventure, for which the Millars

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About the contributor

Paul Atterbury has probably written too many books, on pottery, porcelain and silver, on the Victorians, on canals and on railways, a long-standing obsession. He has many other interests and enthusiasms, reflected by his appearances on the TV programme The Antiques Roadshow.

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