A few years back I wrote about the death of Basil Murray during the Spanish Civil War. A weak-willed alcoholic, Murray is best remembered for providing a model for the character of Basil Seal in various books by Evelyn Waugh.
He died in a bizarre way, bitten to death by a Barbary Macaque while unconscious in a Valencia hotel room. Turns out Barbary apes are dangerous monkeys.
Very dangerous, in fact. One killed King Alexander of Greece in 1920 after a stroll in the royal gardens. The new King was twenty-seven-years-old and his country involved in a bitter war against the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.
Adwa was a scar on Italy’s heart. Back in 1896 this parched market town in the north of Ethiopia saw the Italian Army humbled by warriors with swords and spears. Politicians in Rome thought they could carve an empire out of the last independent nation in Africa. Ethiopian warriors killed 7,000 men in one day and ended that dream.
The Italians wanted revenge. In 1935 they got it. The land of Dante and Caravaggio was now a boisterously aggressive Fascist state under Benito Mussolini. Provocations at the border late the previous year led to war talk and demands for compensation. European powers tried to intervene but could not afford to alienate Mussolini, needed onside to counter-balance the growing threat of Nazi Germany. In October Italian Fascist legions kicked aside the half-hearted diplomacy and marched into Ethiopia. Bombs, bullets, and mustard gas started raining down.
Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie knew his country was poor and underdeveloped. He needed expert foreign help. Forty foreigners ignored League of Nations resolutions on non-intervention and came to Addis Ababa to fight. Another sixty joined medical units or found other roles. The international press corps gathered in Addis Ababa wrote them up as heroes.
A few mercenaries were honest. A few were competent. The rest was a crazy gang of playboys, Nazis, and black crusaders who could barely shoot straight. Here’s a selection from my book Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion [or amazon.com].
My book about the crazy gang of foreign mercenaries who fought for Ethiopia in the 1930s went to the printers last week. It has a shiny new cover in gold and marble grey, and should be in the shops some time this summer.
The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in late 1935 outraged the world. Communists saw it as proof of Fascist barbarism, liberals were shocked by the display of outdated imperialism; even the empire builders in London and Paris were reluctant to welcome Mussolini into their club.
It was a war between far-right modernity and patriarchal traditionalism. The Italians had airplanes, high explosive, and mustard gas. The Ethiopians preferred swords and spears. Emperor Haile Selassie needed expert foreign help. What he got was a bunch of mercenaries who could barely shoot straight and leaned further to the right than Mussolini.
Lost Lions of Judah tells the whole colourful, blood-stained story.
If you’ve ever read any Evelyn Waugh then you’ll know the name Basil Seal. He’s the roguish protagonist of Black Mischief (squeezing money out of an impoverished African nation), Put Out More Flags (squeezing money out of WW2), and Basil Seal Rides Again (squeezing money out … no wait, sabotaging his daughter’s wedding). He also makes a brief appearance in the amputated limb of Work Suspended.
Amoral, unclean, and charming, he’s a bit of a fantasy self-portrait for Waugh. But he began as a stinging caricature of Waugh’s real life enemy from Oxford University: Basil Murray.
A dissolute and rich Oxford graduate who found a cause in Liberal politics and anti-fascism, Murray is probably the only man to be murdered by a monkey during the Spanish Civil War.
Sitting comfortably? Then put a new cigarette in its ivory holder and refresh your whisky and soda. Get the servants to stoke the fire because these old houses can get so cold at night. And make sure your service revolver in the desk drawer is loaded. Captain Grimes is coming round tonight to discuss the accounts.
The little matter of those post-dated cheques in the mess tin. You might be forced to take the gentleman’s way out. Or you might be forced to shoot Captain Grimes.
The wealthiest stratum of British society has always prided itself on loyalty and devotion to duty. But too many of the aristocrats, trust fund beneficiaries and members of the officer class who sit at the apex of Britain’s social triangle have a moral backbone like a bit of wet spaghetti. From Rupert Bellville to Simon Raven, the Earl of Erroll to John Aspinall, the most respectable part of the country has churned out black sheep on a production line scale.
So put away that portfolio of artistic French photographs and leave answering the love note from your brother’s wife until later. Let’s take a stroll through the last one hundred years of bankrupt aristocrats, corrupt golden youths, and frankly untrustworthy remittance men. Books and the odd flick will be our signposts.
We’ll start gently, with some flawed heroes. Let’s go back to the days when we still had an Empire … .
Ok, here’s some historical literary trivia for you. What do HP Lovecraft and Evelyn Waugh have in common apart from a deeply ingrained conservatism and a healthy dose of snobbery?
If you got the answer then pour yourself a drink. Both men created fictional painters active in 1926. Lovecraft came up with Monsieur Ardois-Bonnot, a French painter who ‘… hangs a blasphemous Dream Landscape in the Paris spring salon of 1926’, for his short story The Call of Cthulhu.
Ardois-Bonnot is an example of the worldwide psychic disturbances signifying the reappearance of the alien god. Cthulhu is obviously an art lover. Which salon he hung it in is another story, as there where at least three rival Paris art shows every spring.
Waugh’s contribution is Monsieur Jean de Brissac la Motte who appears in his novel Brideshead Revisited. De Brissac la Motte joins the narrator and friends in London at the time of the 1926 General Strike. He claims to have been in Budapest after WWI when Admiral Horthy rolled in and crushed the Bolsheviks; but ends up in hospital after an elderly widow drops a flower pot on his head from a top floor window.
‘We were joined by a Belgian Futurist, who lived under the, I think, assumed name of Jean de Brissac la Motte, and claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes.’