, , , , ,


This stretch of coast can be found on the Greek island of Rhodes. If you sail round from it you see the white buildings leading to the splendid Venetian harbour of the island, and if you are in a mood to relax you can sit in the shade of trees of one of the many cafes, enjoy the Greek coffee and chat to the inhabitants who, though allegedly impoverished and debt-ridden, still seem to have a much more relaxed view of life than in more affluent societies.

So, what has this glimpse of the Eastern Mediterranean to do with a blog about life in Scotland? Well, dear reader, you will need a little more patience to find out but that patience will be well rewarded. Those who have read my last post about The Picts may be anticipating that I have finally traced their origin to this sunny land. I should love to be able to do that and I think it is not improbable, but that is not the reason.

Apparently straying still further from my theme, I can reveal that the stretch of coastline above is apparently part of what is known as Anthony Quinn Beach. Many of you will recognise the name of the Mexican actor who had a long career in cinema, being employed by directors to portray Mexicans, Greeks, Italians, Turks and assorted Levantine or Latin characters depending on the story. In fact, he became so much in demand that he began to suffer, while still young, from exhaustion. This led to his being advised to visit a doctor with the improbable and suspicious name of Dr. Feelgood. The doctor did indeed make Quinn feel good, but it took the young actor a few months to realise that what he was being given was not just powerful and expensive, but highly illegal. Like one of the characters he portrayed, he evidently took revenge on Dr. Feelgood.    Of course one of his most famous roles was as Zorba the Greek. Zorba was however from Crete, not Rhodes, so the mystery continues, although that film was one of the reasons Quinn came to love Greece.

Quinn came to Rhodes, along with Gregory Peck and David Niven, to make a film based on one of the successful books of the best-selling writer in the world at that time. The film was The Guns of Navarone and the author was Alistair Maclean. Year after year Maclean produced books whose sales were only matched or approached by Agatha Christie and the Belgian creator of Inspector Maigret, Georges Simenon.

Alistair Maclean was born in Shettleston, Glasgow in 1922. That led to his being the right age to serve in the armed forces in the Second World War. That service took him on missions to the Atlantic, the Eastern Mediterranean and, crucially and most dangerously, on the North Atlantic convoys by which Britain sent supplies from Sullom Voe in Shetland round the Norwegian coast to supply our Soviet allies at the port of Murmansk. This was the vital aid we were giving to a country that was under merciless siege by the Nazis. The unique geographical location of the northern Scottish islands and the facilites of the harbour at Sullom Voe (now a very major oil terminal for North Sea production) made it the only feasible location for this necessary task.

Maclean`s native language was not English.  It was Gaelic. However, he learned English when still quite young. That was not the only thing he had in common with one of the greatest writers in English, Joseph Conrad, whose native language was Polish. Conrad (or Josef Teodor Konrad Nalecz Korzeniowski) allegedly did not learn English until he was an adult and then became one of the language`s great stylists. Conrad is of course particularly known for his great books about the sea. Maclean`s career began with the publication of H.M.S. Ulysses, a novel about the North Atlantic convoys in which he had served.

Maclean became recognised as a great writer of exciting, well-plotted adventure stories, normally with heroes made of tank material with little sense of humour and no sex life. Being popular, it was inevitable that he should be disregarded by critics and held in far lower esteem by academia than, for example, his French contemporary, Alain Robbe- Grillet, who could write an entire novel about a stain on a wall. That also contained no sex. It also dispensed with plot, character, humour or drama and was then, predictably, soon taught in universities as a classic. Surprisingly, Robbe-Grillet never won the Nobel Prize.

Discerning readers (which includes me but not most literary critics) have always considered H.M.S. Ulysses to be a book of considerable quality. Even decades after reading it I find the images of the privations and the anxiety of the crew members on these awful winter trips still vivid and haunting.   If one function of literature is to help us experience life more profoundly and understand the strengths and limitations of humanity then this is a major book. At the time, another novel called The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat was highly regarded and was made into an exciting film with Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden and Denholm Elliot. However, most readers considered it inferior to Maclean`s book as a stark insight into what men had suffered and achieved at sea in the war. Of course, both are very fine books and one should not be used to demean the other.

Another parallel between Maclean and Conrad is that Maclean`s portrayal of how ordinary Scottish men dealt with unimaginable danger recalls Conrad`s great story Typhoon where the Scottish captain MacWhirr deals with awesome natural dangers with a practicality and calmness that is almost unnatural. Apparently the character of  MacWhirr was based on a Scottish captain with whom Conrad had sailed. Seafaring has always been a common Scottish activity.

Maclean went on to write many more books. Several of them, like Ice Station Zebra and When Eight Bells Toll, maintain a very high standard. However, when writing so much it was probably inevitable that some would fall below his best. Sadly, Maclean was also subject to a problem common both to Scots and to major writers (and probably lots of useless ones as well.) Like Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and many others, as was said of Raymond Chandler; “he couldn`t handle the sauce”. His war experiences were possibly traumatic, but he was also always a shy, awkward man, particularly in the company of women. He had two marriages, neither very successful. Whether these pressures led him to drink more than otherwise I don`t know, but resort to the bottle is still more common in Scotland than it is in most other countries.

Hollywood soon saw the potential of Maclean`s work and also soon discovered that, unlike the aforementioned Raymond Chandler, he was also very good at writing the screenplays. In fact, with “Where Eagles Dare” he was writing the novel at the same time as the film script. The film starred Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure and Patrick Wymark along with lots of other fine actors in minor roles like Michael Hordern, Anton Diffring and Ingrid Pitt. The film was shot on location in Austria and Bavaria and concerned the attempt to spring prisoners from the supposedly impregnable Colditz castle in the Alps during the Second World War. I remember when I first saw it finding it scenically very impressive and extremely gripping. Evidently in Maclean`s original story hardly anyone gets killed. By the time Hollywood had finished with it it had the highest body count of any Clint Eastwood film.

The success of his books with Hollywood threw Maclean into a world where he often felt lost. It was all so different from the  war service and school teaching he had known before. On the set of “Where Eagles Dare” however he met a kindred spirit of a kind. Richard Burton`s love for strong drink was fully a match for Maclean`s, and the two very different men held a fascination for each other. Writers were the only people Burton really admired and Maclean was in awe of Burton`s ease with women and the whole world of glamour. To Maclean writing was easy, just as moving in the world of glamour was for the Welsh actor. Both had shown signs of real genius at times in their art but both ultimately saw their work as simply a mechanical process that bored them. With both that finally showed. As if to reflect this closeness the two men are buried near each other in Celigny Switzerland.

Maclean was very productive. In addition to the books by which he is well known he wrote several under the pseudonym Ian Stuart to prove that his books sold on quality not just on his name. In later life he wrote a number of stories about a fictitious UN crime-fighting organisation, commissioned by an American film studio. Some of these later appeared as films starring Pierce Brosnan. He died in Munich in 1987, just short of his 65th birthday.