The First World War: cerise Penguins

October 3, 2010

I’ve begun collecting early Penguin paperbacks, not in a systematic fashion, but because I realised there was some interesting long-lost travel writing in the early volumes with the cerise covers, so I now look out for them at book fairs and in second-hand shops. Interestingly the category is sometimes listed as ‘Travel & Adventure’ and sometimes as ‘Adventure’.

I recently found three that were written about the First World War, which is another of my literary interests, partly because I teach FWW literature at school.

‘Within Four Walls: A Classic of Escape’ read almost like Boys’ Own Paper yarns; two officers prisoners in Germany virtually from the start of the war, making repeated attempts to escape and reach freedom in Holland, and often recaptured at the very last minute. They did eventually make it, separately.

‘Two Vagabonds in Serbia and Montenegro’ was rather rambling and incoherent travelling around as medics; it reminded me of Svejk’s adventures more than anything else.

The most interesting of the three was ‘The Dark Invader’, an account by a German agent who spent a lot of time trying to sabotage the Allied war effort and sink its shipping, mainly from his base in the United States. Eventually he was caught and seemed to feel very hard done by as he spent several years in prison. After the war he met up with a number of the Brits whom he plotted and planned against, and either outwitted or was outwitted by; there seemed to be no hard feelings, as if it had all been a gentlemen’s game played by the rules. It was an eye-opening view of the earlier days of espionage, though.

None of these would I particularly recommend, but they were interesting little sidelights on the territory.

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