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A useful primer on the war in North Africa

Destiny in the Desert: the Road to El Alamein – the Battle that Turned the Tide - review.

Destiny in the Desert: the Road to El Alamein – the Battle that Turned the Tide
Jonathan Dimbleby
Profile Books, 544pp, £25

The bookshelves of Britain creak with what one connoisseur of the genre once described to me as “Nazi porn”: endless works, some superb, many not, about the Second World War, its prelude and its aftermath. We may shortly reach the stage where, for a time, there is nothing more to be said. However, as various 70th anniversaries from the conflict occur, the temptation to mark them by felling more trees appears irresistible. Normally, 70th anniversaries do not matter; these do, I suspect, not least because by the time of the 75th hardly anyone will be left who bore witness on active service to the horrors of Hitler’s war.

The demand for these books operates on two distinct levels. On one are highly scholarly and specialised works by authors such as Michael Burleigh, Ian Kershaw and Andrew Roberts that take particular aspects of the conflict and contribute to our knowledge of events, providing new insights into a war with which we thought we were familiar. On the other is work that relies on secondary sources and is an opportunity for a non-academic author to offer his – and writing about war remains a predominantly masculine fetish – judgements of people and events in whom the public has an abiding interest. This explains the suffocating quantity of books on Winston Churchill, about whom some of us feel, as Clement Attlee once put it in another context, a period of silence would be most welcome.

Jonathan Dimbleby’s book is in the second category and, provided one is not a Nazi-porn specialist, it is none the worse for that. He patently knows his subject and has good reason to do so. His father, Richard Dimbleby, was in North Africa for the BBC and his son draws on some of the material Dimbleby père accumulated. There is a flavour in this book of what-Ilearned- at-my-father’s-knee, which, provided it is part of a variety of evidence (as it is here), is valuable and interesting. Dimbleby has been into a few archives but is heavily reliant on published work. If you know your Nazi porn, you will learn very little from this book.

However, that is not the point. The book accompanies a BBC documentary, part of the corporation’s laudable mission to remind us that the past did not begin on the morning of Tony Blair’s election. Both the documentary and the book are about accessibility. Sadly, there are too many people in this country who reach adulthood, have their intellectual curiosity awakened about the past, yet realise that what passed for their education has hardly prepared them for the task. If books such as this, easily digestible, factually accurate and written with studied liveliness, assist that process – and I suspect they do – then so much the better.

This is not, though, just a beginner’s guide to El Alamein or the battle for North Africa. Dimbleby gives plenty of context, draws good character sketches and exercises a healthy scepticism about many of our national heroes. He paints Churchill in all his unreasonableness, caprice and occasional idiocy, while reminding his readers that this was total war and we were lucky to have a total bastard leading us in it. He does not spare Field Marshal Montgomery, either, which is just as well. The more one reads about Monty, the more one realises he probably had a medical condition, perhaps Asperger’s syndrome, which rendered him oblivious to his own cringe-making self-obsession and aggrandisement and caused him to fail to interact with brother officers (though he was good with the men, which was even more important).

Dimbleby more or less answers, satisfactorily, a question he poses at the start of his book: was the North African campaign worth the terrible loss of life that resulted from it? It was. It was the Italians, living up to their national stereotype at the time, who landed Hitler in it. Having gone to North Africa and picked a fight with British and Commonwealth troops in the late summer of 1940, they received a thrashing and Hitler felt he had to intervene.

North Africa had strategic importance for the Nazis. It was one of the keys to the Middle East, to the Suez Canal, to the Mediterranean theatre in which the invasion of Italy would eventually be launched and to Britain’s supply of oil. After inflicting grievous losses on the Allies, Erwin Rommel finally overreached himself. His supply lines were not equal to his long-term survival and he knew it. When Monty launched his assault at El Alamein in October 1942, Rommel was in a clinic in Austria, burned out with stress. He flew straight back but the situation was hopeless. However, as Dimbleby points out, the job the Royal Navy did in cutting off Rommel’s supplies and that the RAF did in bombing the German and Italian positions was every bit as vital to the victory as the dogged and heroic Eighth Army.

A North Africa novice will find this comprehensive book the perfect primer for an investigation of the subject. However, it is not well edited – somebody should have reined in Dimbleby’s highly adjectival style, which grates after a while and leads him too often into the swamp of cliché. Also, for a book so reliant on secondary sources, the ones he relies on are curious: Martin Gilbert’s epic Churchill biography and its apparatus do not appear in the bibliography, while quite a lot of pop history, itself reliant on secondary sources and the efforts of research assistants, does. But then, one of the most successful outcomes of such a book is that it stimulates readers to take a further interest and to find and judge the authoritative works themselves.

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis