From Cairo to Cassino: A memoir of Paddy Costello by Dan Davin, ed. Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, 2019) 94 pp., $25
When Clive Reading says he’s planning to kill himself, his fellow officer feels sorry for him but can’t help thinking he could do worse. For Reading has broken the sacred code that binds men together in time of war – he has deserted his men on the eve of battle: ‘Cleared out. Ratted. Buggered off. Said he had to report back to battalion.’
These men are characters in Dan Davin’s short story ‘Coming and Going’ in Breathing Spaces (1975), and the ethos that underpins the story also shapes Davin’s memoir of Paddy Costello.
Dan Davin and Paddy Costello were mates, comrades-at-arms, passionately loyal in a way that’s hard to grasp for those of us who weren’t there and have never experienced anything like it. It’s a devotion that in World War I prompted Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen to return to the front to be with their men, despite their very public opposition to the war. Davin and Costello were spared that ambivalence: they were in total agreement that Nazidom had to be defeated.
The memoir was never completed to Davin’s satisfaction. It stops abruptly in 1944 and has remained unpublished until now. For most of the time it covers (March 1941 to February 1944), Davin and Costello were intelligence officers in the North Africa campaign: their job was to gather information from interrogation of prisoners, incoming reports and captured documents, and to summarise these concisely for General Freyberg. They did this during the day, then at night they talked, argued, sang and drank.
We have to look elsewhere to learn about their heroism as soldiers: here, Davin is laconic about his own past experiences in Greece and Crete, and refers only in passing to the dangers they encountered as intelligence officers. They followed the New Zealand Division as closely as they could in order to have constant coverage of the wireless traffic, and so were likely to be shelled. Once they narrowly escaped capture by a German rearguard.
Most of the memoir is about a very close sociable life in the Café, as their intelligence truck came to be known, and about Davin’s intense admiration for Costello. It’s an evocative and comradely picture: when it was just Davin and Costello together the talk was literary, of Tolstoy and Stendhal, Thucydides and Homer. But all were welcome, and you didn’t have to be an Oxbridge man to join in. Davin evokes the ‘natural democratic spirit of the New Zealanders’. You didn’t even need to have read much: ‘all you needed was to be alive and to be alert’. When the Catholic Padre Father Forsman was there they argued about the existence of God. Sometimes Davin and Costello came to blows: ‘Paddy and I,’ Davin confesses, ‘were the most apt to violence in our cups.’
The days they spent together as the New Zealand Division made its way from Tunis back to Cairo were sometimes idyllic. Rommel had been defeated and the pressure was off. They chatted, argued, ‘drank three gallons of plonk’ and explored the ruins at Leptis Magna, where Paddy tested the acoustics of the theatre by declaiming ‘from Euripides, from Seneca, from Dante and from Robert Emmett’. They mused, naked, on the passing of empires after a forbidden swim in the Baths of Trajan, part of the Temple of Apollo complex. Interspersed with vivid descriptions of places passed through and people encountered, this section reads like a scenario for a film script.
They drank a lot. I wondered where all their alcohol came from, as in wartime lines of supply presumably focus on other essentials, and goods had to be transported either all the way from New Zealand, or from Britain via the Cape of Good Hope. There is a clue from Keith Douglas, another writer/soldier who described his experiences in Alamein to Zem Zem (1946): a good source of alcohol was plunder from Italian depots and hospitals. And in Alexandria there was Egyptian beer, and English gin going for seven shillings a bottle.
Davin clearly admired Costello deeply, measured himself against him and found himself wanting. Costello’s left-wing idealism made Davin feel as if he was blushing ‘faintly pink’, and ought to be more committed. Costello was the better scholar: he had ‘a not altogether improper contempt for my classical scholarship’, and was inclined to denounce Davin as ‘a smooth Oxford intellectual and an unreliable pretentious bourgeois’. (Davin read Greats at Oxford, Costello took the Classical Tripos at Cambridge.) Davin accepted all this, felt energised by his friend’s vitality and continued to love him.
Neither man comes over as a paragon. Their drinking and its associated violence are alarming. For all their brilliance they were men of their time, with something of the unreflecting sexism and racism of the age. If they had misgivings about British Imperialism, these are not recorded. Once, Davin worried about the mines left behind that would injure and kill Arabs, but on the whole they experienced the war zones as war zones, with scant regard for the people who actually lived there: we hear of ‘the lovelies in Mary’s [Alexandria] that passed for the beautiful’, and of Arabs being slothful, Sicilian colonists cordial and sycophantic.
Robert McLean as editor provides helpful notes, a range of photos and a thoughtful introduction that suggests that he and Cold Hub Press have an academic readership in mind. This draws on earlier scholarship by James McNeish and Keith Ovendon, whose works are acknowledged, and indeed the introduction becomes more enlightening in the context of what McNeish and Ovendon have written. In Dance of the Peacocks, McNeish describes Davin as a gloomy fellow with sadness in his heart for no known reason, a man who liked to be surrounded by irreverence, vitality and love of language in order to cheer himself. McLean goes further, drawing on literary theory and analogy to present a picture of a man who was often depressed, and whose ‘Costello’ in the memoir is an invention to meet his own needs.
Among the many literary allusions in the introduction, one is confusing. It concerns Costello’s failure to fulfill his academic potential, a subject already touched on by Dan Davin in the obituary he wrote about his friend (The Times, 25 Feb 1964). McLean goes further and says that Costello ‘had something of Lear’s complaint about him: what did all his sound and fury signify?’ But when Macbeth (not Lear) finds that life signifies nothing, it is after an orgy of killing and the death of his wife. A poor publishing record is just not on the same scale, and anyway, Davin’s Costello as presented in the memoir is a much more vital, life-enhancing force, the life and soul of any party, more like the Mark Antony who ‘revels long o’ nights’ but ‘is notwithstanding up’.
McLean refers to the ongoing controversy about whether Costello was a Soviet spy (see kiwispies.com), and wisely avoids too much speculation on the subject. And beyond suggesting that Davin might have begun the memoir with a view to clearing his friend’s name, and abandoned it when he found he lacked the necessary proof, he keeps out of the ongoing debate about Davin’s motives also. The accusation must have made Costello a non-person in certain quarters: General Freyberg was by all accounts devoted to him, but Freyberg’s son’s biography (Bernard Freyberg VC: Soldier of two nations) doesn’t even mention him.
For all the complexity surrounding the memoir, From Cairo to Cassino is about a close union between comrades-at-arms, a story of simple patriotism and of love. Davin writes that he ‘just could not believe the Germans would get past our line at Alamein, past Paddy, past Freyberg, and those high New Zealand voices, full of confidence and courage, that I had heard passing through the Cairo night’. Most of all, it is a love story: McLean strikes a note of biblical reverence in concluding that Davin is shown to be a man of many great gifts, the greatest of these being love.
RUTH BROWN, born in New Zealand, now works in England as an academic and editor. In the 1990s and early 2000s she ran the interdisciplinary New Zealand Studies Group in London, a support network for postgraduate students, visiting writers and academics working on New Zealand-related topics.