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Sunday 11 July 2010

RIP ‘Peter Cotton’-2: ‘I Do Hope I Can Help You’

I had some intrigued reactions to my post last week about my meetings with the ‘real’ Peter Cotton – but they didn’t start particularly well. I had three long interviews with him in his house in Guadalajara. All quotes from him come courtesy not of a remarkable memory but a tape-recorder and nine hours of tapes.

Three steps down from the main floor he had a long, rather narrow, room, with two walls of glass and two, one punctured by the steps, book lined. At the beginning he thought I had come along to chat about what he later called ‘stuff for fantasists’ that is, books about a hero. When he found out that the protagonist I had in mind was ‘in intelligence, swimming as he could as the British Empire went down the drain,’ he kittled up. This was not, in fact, quite what I had said but I was happy to let him talk.

‘I don’t subscribe to the heroic generation stuff you keep seeing in obituaries,’ he said. ‘I have met some of those Second War heroes. They varied. At least two I met were quite unfit for later life. Most service people soon learnt they would have to be lucky to survive the stupidity of their own side. Those on that ship that kept going to Singapore, for example, after the Japanese had taken it because nobody had thought to countermand the order. They were unlucky.’

‘Perhaps it would be better if you thought of us as a disturbed generation – we grew up in the depression, had the war, in a sense did not get to grow up until we were in our late twenties.’

I was, of course, aware he was rather enjoying himself. “I am an old man and I get to talk frankly,’ he said with relish more than once.

He was equally blunt about Intelligence. ‘You will find it difficult to accept that it could have been quite that incompetent. I remember getting out of a cab in the sixties. On the radio The Rolling Stones were singing Satisfaction. Inside the Intelligence building, candidates for a job in the secret services were being asked to put the ranks of the British nobility in order. You know, Duke first, down to Baronet. This was after Philby and all the rest. The thing was, still is to some degree, utterly class ridden.’

‘In Intelligence work there is a large component of what is now called PR. Most of it is a sort of post event Dunkirk. You get a plucky miracle to overlay the very bad planning. The other parts, all the men that were ordered to surrender with the French, for example, like the entire 51st division, go into the historical out-tray. And little mention is made of the six thousand troops bombed on a passenger ship. Some of them died you know jumping into the water in full kit. The jump was about eighty feet and if a man did not take off his helmet before hitting the water, his head come off with it when he did.’

He nodded. ‘The chaos is fairly simple, the brutality often accidental, keeping up morale takes over.’

At the end of the first session he asked me what I was going to call my protagonist. ‘Peter Cotton,’ I said.

‘Oh that’s quite good,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why but most of the Peters I have come across have tended to be awfully prim in one way, utter pricks in another and always prone to self-delusion, sometimes grandiose. In one way all involved in Intelligence are Peters.’

To be honest, I was not initially very encouraged. On my way back from Guadalajara to Madrid, I began to wonder if another visit would be such a good idea. It wasn’t until my husband asked me a couple of questions that I began to see something else. The questions were about the books on the shelves. And then I remembered one on the coffee table. It was part of Javier Marias’ trilogy. I flicked at it. In that trilogy the protagonist’s mentor is called Peter Wheeler, the real name of Sir Peter Russell, distinguished hispanist and Second World War spy.

‘The old bastard,’ I said. ‘Maybe this is who I have been looking for.’

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