Incapable of compromise

Dangerous Waters: the life and death of Erskine Childers

Leonard Piper <em>Hambledon and London, 2

Perhaps nobody personifies England's tangled relationship with Ireland quite like Erskine Chil-ders. Born in England but raised in Ireland, he fought for Britain in the First World War, before joining Sinn Fein and then the IRA. He was executed by the Irish Free State, but his son eventually became president of the Irish Republic. Chiefly known in Ireland for smuggling German guns into the country on the eve of the Great War, he is most famous in England as the author of the novel that, some say, anticipated - and may even have helped precipitate - that conflict.

Published a century ago, The Riddle of the Sands still reads like an upmarket contemporary thriller. Only the storyline betrays its age. A pair of patriotic Englishmen, on a duck-shooting holiday, sail a small yacht along the desolate North Sea coast of Germany. En route, they uncover a Prussian plot to invade Britain by sea. Childers had himself sailed the same coastline, and his book is a potent brew of travelogue, reportage and autobiography.

Most of the plot is pure fantasy, but its central premise, bolstered by Childers's laconic prose (the opening chapter offers a wonderful portrait of the boredom and drift of London clubland in August), fed Britain's self-fulfilling panic about Germany's expansionist ambitions. The book was an immediate success; even the chaps at the Admiralty loved it. After the war, it transpired that Germany had indeed been considering an amphibious invasion of Britain. But in the war he had anticipated, it was Childers who saw active service in British raids on the German coast, not the other way around.

The Riddle of the Sands turned Childers, a House of Commons clerk, into a public figure. Yet, rather than build a literary career, he started, with characteristic perversity, campaigning for Irish Home Rule. After flirting with the Liberals, he became, as his passion for Ireland grew more inflamed, Sinn Fein's minister of publicity. When Sinn Fein split over the 1921 treaty giving Ireland limited dominion status, he became director of publicity for the IRA. "He was one of those men who by temperament was incapable of compromise," observed Lloyd George. "Brave and resolute he undoubtedly was, but, unhappily for himself, he was also rigid and fanatical." He never wrote another novel.

With such a varied career, it would be hard to write a boring biography of Childers. Piper doesn't disappoint. While there was nothing wrong with Jim Ring's efficient biography, Erskine Childers: author of The Riddle of the Sands (John Murray, 1996), Piper brings fresh insight to this fascinating, often contradictory life. His narrative twists and turns like a sequel to Childers's own novel; he never allows his analysis to slow the pace.

Like all good biographies, this book doubles as a history of its age. Childers lived through a period of remarkable upheaval. At the time of his birth, in 1870, Lenin had just been born and Germany was yet to become a nation. At his execution, in 1922, the Tsar was dead, the Kaiser exiled, and both the Soviet Union and the Weimar Republic were in full swing. Ireland was in the throes of a civil war. Only Britain remained relatively unchanged.

In this cinematic age of ours, no biography can truly give Childers's life the memorial it deserves. The Riddle of the Sands was filmed in 1979, with Michael York and Jenny Agutter. But Childers himself won't be remembered properly until his own story becomes a film. Who would play him? Well, how about Liam Neeson? After all, he has already tackled both Irish and German history, in Michael Collins and Schindler's List. Until then, given his divided love for both England and Ireland, it is fitting that Childers continues to enjoy reputations on both sides of the Irish Sea.