|The fate of many apes in the wild, being hunted for “bushmeat.” Rousseau and others believed that apes were man.|
Monkey Business During the Spanish Civil War
Yet another character in search of an author was the young man whom I shall call Alastair – Alastair MacDougall. Alastair was the lively and wayward offspring of a silver-haired and silver-tongued Oxford don who, because of his brilliant translations of Greek comedies and his highminded defence of Utopian causes, ranked as one of Britain’s great intellectual celebrities.
For a time Alastair had been taken up by Lord Beaverbrook. Indeed, between 1933 and 1935 he seemed to be one of the most promising eaglets that fluttered around the eyrie of the Beaver. He had written powerful articles for the Daily Express on such favourite topics of the proprietor as “Why die before Seventy?” He had written gossip paragraphs for the Londoner’s Diary in the Evening Standard. He was happily married too, to a young woman who not only had great beauty but distinguished family connections. He had stood for parliament. The world, as they say, was at his feet.
And then something went wrong. A divorce action in which he was involved as the co-respondent shattered his marriage. He left the Beaverbrook eyrie. Whisky began to play an increasingly important part in the daily routine of this young man from a strictly teetotal family. He came near to a nervous breakdown. What once had been charming eccentricity developed into a phobic moodiness and mad romantic exaltation. Love, hunger for love, threw him into delusions and despair.
He was close to a breakdown when he learned that journalists were wanted who would write for the ‘Democratic Cause’ in Spain and win it support in the English-speaking world. He could speak Spanish. So he volunteered and was hired. Isabel looked after him as he passed through Paris – a good looking dark-eyed Celt whose agitation seemed to intensify as the moment came nearer for the departure of the train. So much so, that as it started to move out of the Gare d’Orsay he grabbed Isabel’s hand and tried to drag her into the carriage with him.
“Come with me, come with me, Isabel,” he cried. “Don’t let me go alone. I love you. For ever I love you.” Isabel was able to shake herself free only just in time to prevent an unpleasant accident.
In Valencia Alastair did not last very long with the Spanish News Service. ‘Simon,’ alias Otto Katz,* the sardonic German Communist director of the service, was not after all, he discovered, the enlightened and progressive alternative to Lord Beaverbrook as a boss he had hoped. Simon, Constancia, and Milly for their part were not able to find much use for this disturbed and disturbing young man, who had come to Spain to play the part of a Byron, and who could not be relied on to turn up at the office and play the part of a hack. So Alastair left the Spanish News Service and joined instead, the International News Service of Mr. William Randolph Hearst.
But not even Mr. Hearst, and his requests and instructions cabled from New York, were able to free Alastair from his demoniac obsession. Nor, strangely did women seem ready to slake his thirst for love. It was the brusque turndown he got from a red-headed girl reporter which precipitated the train of events which I claim made of Alastair material worthy of the attention of a novelist.
Again I suppose I was obtuse, but to me the red-headed Molly Milliner, in her black, rather prim little frock with the lace collar, did not seem the kind of romantic figure over whom men would want to fight. But she was a woman, and therefore the target of Alastair’s now almost maniac passion. He decided she was the loveliest creature in the world, and told her so again and again. Until Molly, to underline her rejections of his suit, made it clear to him that she much preferred the attentions of the Daily Herald. Even though the Daily Herald was suffering from a most unprepossessing broken jaw, the result of a Valencia dentist’s attempt to draw a wisdom tooth.
Rejection by Molly was the last straw for Alastair. In a climax of despair he decided he had to make some gesture, commit some act of public defiance to register his disgust with all womankind. Ed, the A. P. Correspondent, who was his great friend, tried his hardest to dissuade him. But when Ed found all his pleas without avail, he decided that he would at least accompany Alastair to see that he should come to as little harm as possible.
Alastair and Ed were just entering the squalid port district of Valencia, where the houses were in which milicianos queued for sex and got it doled out to them in ‘ratitos’ of seven minutes each. Rounding a corner they ran straight into a street circus.
Alastair took just one look at the circus’s top attraction and he knew his problem was solved. There she swung from a trapeze, his ideal female, a fine buxom she-ape with all the indications of her sex emphatically developed.
With a whoop of joy Alastair informed the appalled Ed “That’s her! Isn’t she a beauty? I shall buy her from the man and take her home with me. God, what a lovely creature. Just look at that glorious bosom!”
The proprietor of the circus, however, did not want to sell the she-ape, prize attraction of his show, irreplaceable star performer of his troupe, bread winner of his family. No doubt he would have remained obdurate too, however many pesetas Alastair had offered him. And Alastair was offering him a great many even when calculated at the black market rate.
But just as Alastair was about to see himself rejected and foiled yet once more, a band of wild men who called themselves the Iron Guard of Karl Marx, lurched on to the scene. They stood around, listening with admiration to Alastair’s imprecations. They heard the circus man’s refusal. Their Spanish sense of humour went out to the British compañero in one overwhelming gust of sympathy.
“What,” cried their leader, a big fellow in a sailor’s striped singlet, a pistol hanging from a holster under his armpit. “You miserable skulking capitalist of a circus owner, you have the effrontery to deny the ape to this gallant British compañero who has come out to Spain to fight with us for liberty and democracy. You refuse to part with this ape who, it is clear for all to see, is dying with passion for the British compañero? And that although the compañero is even prepared to pay you for her, aye, and handsomely? Why you miserable obscenity obscenity of your mother’s obscenity, if you don’t this instant transfer the ape to the British compañero, we of the Iron Guard of Karl Marx will tear your miserable obscenity of a circus to bits so that there shall be nothing left of it or you!”
The circus proprietor sold the ape to Alastair. And Alastair arm in arm with the ape, the Iron Guards of Karl Marx and Ed, adjourned in triumph to the nearest bar where they celebrated their great victory over sordid capitalism. Alastair was happy. Then they set out for home, calling at many more bars and wine shops on the way – at each of which, to the great joy of the Iron Guard and any other drinkers who might be around, the she-ape drank her fair share of the rounds.
“What a girl, what a wonderful, wonderful girl,” sang Alastair, beside himself with happiness. At last the group, Iron Guards, Alastair, ape and Ed, arrived outside the Victoria Hotel which was the Valencia home not only of the Foreign Press Correspondents, but also of a number of ministers and VIP politicians. Not very surprisingly the porter on duty at the hotel door refused to let Alastair bring in the ape.
“What?” said Alastair indignantly, “you wish to exclude my lady friend from the hotel? What is this intolerable discrimination? What about all the other apes in the hotel?”
Again Alastair had scored a point which went straight to the Spanish hearts of the Iron Guards of Karl Marx. In a chorus of simulated fury they bellowed abuse at the porter.
“Yes, what about those other apes in the hotel?” they asked menacingly. “The Inglés is right. Why do you wish to exclude this one?” And their leader, the man in the striped sailor’s vest with the pistol holster under his armpit added, “If you do not immediately permit the señora ape to enter the hotel with the Inglés then we shall take the place to bits and when we have finished there will be nothing left of the hotel or you.”
The ‘Responsable’ of the hotel had arrived at the door in the meantime. He heard the threats, saw the Iron Guards, and decided to give way. It was the right decision. For in these weeks the Iron Guard of Karl Marx, and not the government, were the real rulers of Valencia. Their roaming bands held all in thrall. Caballero had not yet called on that gallant old puritan Colonel Ortega to come down to Valencia with his regiment of Basque militia to arrest the Iron Guard and clean the place up. So, with the Responsable and the porter leading the way, and after saying innumerable flowery goodbyes to the Iron Guardsmen, and promising to meet them again the next day, Alastair, the ape and Ed entered the hotel and marched hand in hand straight to Alastair’s room.
“The last I saw of Alastair that evening,” said Ed when he told me what had happened, “was when he turned on the water for his bath. ‘And now my poppet,’ he was saying as I closed the door, ‘you shall have a lovely warm bath with plenty of lovely lavender soap. Do you like soap, oh Queen of my heart?’”
Ed took it for granted that Alastair would emerge the next morning sobered and anxious to get rid of the ape. He was unable to check on this himself, as he had to go off on a trip to the front. Nor did he wish to entrust anyone else with this mission, as he thought it best to keep this escapade a secret. The hotel servants did not enter the room, firstly because Alastair had locked the door, and secondly because they were afraid – afraid of the ape and her peculiar British friend. Which is how it came about, that neither Ed nor anyone else saw Alastair for forty-eight hours after he had gone to his room with the ape.
But when Ed did at last get back from the front and learned that Alastair had not been seen around, he went straight up to Alastair’s room. He managed to get Alastair to open the door for him. A scene of chaos and squalor greeted him. The ape lay in a corner of the room huddled in a nest of blankets and pillows. She was coughing. So too was Alastair. He was flushed and clearly had a high temperature. Ed immediately went into action. He had the ape removed from the room, while a messenger was sent out to look for the proprietor of the street circus, in order that he might take back the ape. Another messenger went to fetch a doctor for Alastair. When he arrived, the doctor diagnosed that Alastair had double pneumonia.
“It seems to be pneumonia of a peculiarly virulent character,” he said. “Can you tell me anything of the patient’s history – What he has been doing in the last few days?”
But no-one wanted to tell the doctor about the ape. A great pity. For it seems reasonably probable that what Alastair had picked up was Ape pneumonia whose virus, when transferred to a human being, would presumably be particularly noxious. Ed sat with Alastair, while waiting for the British Consul to arrange for him to be transferred to the British hospital ship Maine, which was lying off Alicante about 60 miles down the coast from Valencia.
“Most of the time he was delirious,” Ed told me later. “But in his moments of lucidity, Alastair was back with his obsession about women. He kept insisting they all hated and despised him.”
Ed did his best to persuade him this was an absurd delusion. Suddenly Alastair sat up. “All right,” he said, “let’s see who is right – you or I. Promise you will send these cables for me.”
Still sitting up in bed Alastair, gaunt and flushed, wrote out three cables. Each contained a flamboyant declaration of love and a proposal of marriage. Each was addressed to a different young woman, celebrated in London society for her comeliness and wit.
Then there came a knock at the door, and in came the khaki-uniformed stretcher-bearers from the Scottish Ambulance, one of those voluntary British welfare organisations of which there were a number at work in the Spanish Civil War. The bearers wrapped Alastair up in blankets and carried him down the hotel stairs to a Union Jack blazoned ambulance waiting outside in the street. The ambulance started out for Alicante. But Alastair died before they got there. He was in a coffin when he was carried aboard the hospital ship.
The next morning three cables arrived for Alastair at the Victoria Hotel. Ed opened them. They were from the girls to whom he had proposed. All three returned his love, two accepted him.
Those are the facts of the strange death of the young man I call Alastair, just as Ed related them to me shortly after it all happened. I have no reason to doubt Ed, who is one of the finest reporters to come out of the United States. Only once did Ed slip up in his career. And that was not a case of inaccuracy, but of over-eagerness. He broke the embargo on Germany’s capitulation after Hitler’s suicide in 1945. His world scoop cost him his job.
* Otto Katz had been one of the members of Münzenberg’s propaganda team in Paris. He was liquidated in a Communist purge that followed the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948.
Notes on Black Boomerang
16-17 Evil-smelling teeth
Sefton Delmer, Trail Sinister, Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, London 1961 pp. 337-343.