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Sunday 1 August 2010

The ‘Real’ Peter Cotton – 3: On Literary Violence

During my second interview with the recently deceased ‘original’ for Peter Cotton, he was decidedly relaxed.

As before, we spoke in his large study near Guadalajara in Spain. I am not good at compass points but I did notice that the largest window - almost the whole wall - faced North, overlooking a wooded valley, so that the view, rather than the window was sunlit.

He told me that Sir Peter Russell – on his birth certificate and in several Javier Marias’ novels Peter Wheeler – was apparently pleased to have ‘a small taste of literary immortality, or at least of a version of himself surviving between book covers.’

He was still teasing me however. He also suggested that this result was every spy’s dream: ‘Along with the apparent modesty, I regret to tell you that in a number of agents I have encountered, there is a Hamlet-like insistence on preserving the mystery of themselves.’

‘In any case,’ he said, ‘while Sir Peter was a spy during WW2, he is also a most innovative and distinguished Hispanist. I was never an Hispanist of any sort and nobody really knows what Sir Peter did in the war. What I will bet on, however, is that his experiences encouraged and re-enforced the innovative side in him. There is a story that after he had suffered a motor-bike accident he was sent to Lochailort in the Scottish Highlands, and there beaten up by his own side to prepare him for withstanding torture. It’s the kind of experience that changes anyone’s view of the world.’

‘My own favourite story about him,’ he went on,’ is that at the end of the war he was supposed to have been instructed to get rid of an Indian agent, code-named Carbuncle. I think shoving him over the side of a ship was suggested. Or he might have been given liberty to choose his method. But he chose to handcuff himself to the man and when they arrived at Singapore, he uncuffed him and told him to eff off. That would be a saving grace, wouldn’t it?’

‘In Hispanic studies he is often termed ‘iconoclastic’. That’s a secondary effect of thinking clearly and upsetting some established views.’

‘But it’s hardly violence. I don’t think there is anyone of my generation who is not now some sort of pacifist.’

He looked up, rather sadly. ‘But if you want to write about an agent you are going to have to deal with violence. It is rather difficult to do. Far too many people are rather excited by it. They imagine it simplifies life, let’s them act, achieves a resolution.’

He smiled. ‘Mind you, he said, ‘that mystery stuff does screen all kinds of moral discomfort.’

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