Yes, I’m still a month behind with my Powell reads, but I have just managed to squeeze book 9 in before the end of October so that I don’t get even further in arrears! The Military Philosophers is the third in the ‘war trilogy’ and contains a lot of events, emotions, changes and losses.

As we start the book, Nick is now working in military liaison, looking after a varied bunch of foreign attaches and dealing with the pettiness and politics of military life.He is based in London, looking after the Polish contingent, working under Pennistone and Finn. Needless to say, he crosses paths with the dreaded Widmerpool, as well as a number of old acquaintances such as Sunny Farebrother and Templer. He also encounters old haunts, and in a chilling reminder of how things are changed goes off on a visit to the Polish HQ in London, which turns out to be Uncle Giles’ erstwhile home, the Ufford Hotel.


We are memorably introduced to Stringham’s niece, the notorious Pamela Flitton, who is working as a driver for the army; she reveals that Stringham was captured when Singapore fell. The war rumbles on, Nick is promoted to supervising Belgians and Czechs, and then during an air raid he runs into Pamela and her current man, who turns out to be Odo Stevens. Her temperament is rather violently displayed here as they row dramatically. Also present is Mrs. Erdleigh who is in full soothsaying mood.

Then Nick finally makes major and is assigned to accompany a group of assorted foreign attaches round Normandy and Belgium, through war zones, devastation and some very moving Proustian scenery. The book ends with peace at last arriving and a thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The war is over and Nick, like so many others, has to return to civilian life.

Reading TMP is something of an emotional rollercoaster, as we follow the ups and downs of the ending of the war and the corresponding ups and downs of the various characters. Indeed, in the war trilogy Powell paints a brilliant and moving picture of wartime Britain and the effects of the long conflict on people and places. There are so many losses, so many lives turned inside out, and this is really brought home in these books. His somewhat laconic style doesn’t hide up the pain and hurt which is going on around him and I think I’ve come to realises that the books are just not really about Nick, but those around him – he is simply the carrier, the method of telling the tale, so we should not expect any inner monologues about his emotions. Nevertheless, we do come to care about him, despite Powell’s refusal to allow us to get too close!

It’s going to be difficult to write in-depth about this book without giving too much away, but let’s get on with specifics. Once again, there are some really wonderful characterisations in TMP, and my favourite has to be the ultimate civil servant, Blackhead, whose convoluted paperwork and refusal to allow anyone to have anything has to be unrivalled:

“The stairs above the second floor led up into a rookery of lesser activities, some fairly obscure of definition. On these higher storeys dwelt the Civil branches and their subsidiaries, Finance, Internal Administration, Passive Air Defence, all diminishing in official prestige as the altitude steepened. Finally the explorer converged on attics under the eaves, where crusty hermits lunched frugally from paper bags, amongst crumb-powdered files and documents ineradicably tattooed with the circular brand of the teacup. At these heights, vestiges of hastily snatched meals endured throughout all seasons, eternal as the unmelted upland snows. Here, under the leads, like some unjustly confined prisoner in the Council of Ten, lived Blackhead. It was a part of the building rarely penetrated, for even Blackhead himself preferred on the whole to make forays on others, rather than that his own fastness should be invaded.”

Pennistone warns Nick: ‘Until you have dealings with Blackhead, the word “bureaucrat” will have conveyed no meaning to you. He is the super-tchenovnik of the classical Russian novel. Even this building can boast no on else quite like him.’ And later:  ‘Blackhead is a man apart,’ said Pennistone. ‘Even his colleagues are aware of that. His minutes have the abstract quality of pure intention.’

Powell captures him beautifully, as always – he really is a master at nailing character with words! And his writing is just exquisite – for example, this wonderful description of Donners:

“In the seven years or so that had passed since I had last seen him, Sir Magnus Donners had grown not so much older in appearances, as less like a human being. He now resembled an animated tailor’s dummy, one designed to recommend second-hand, though immensely discreet, clothes (if the suit he was wearing could be regarded as a sample) adapted to the taste of distinguished men no longer young. Jerky movements, like those of a marionette – perhaps indicating all was not absolutely well with his physical system – added to the impression of an outsize puppet that had somehow escaped from its box and begun to mix with real people, who were momentarily taken in by the extraordinary conviction of its mechanism.”

So many of our old favourites reappear, with in many cases a certain amount of poignancy, and of course the dreadful Kenneth has a prominent part in the events that take place in the book. Widmerpool’s behaviour and quest for power attains monstrous proportions in TMP; but then he is a completely self-serving egotist, so it is no surprise when he hooks up with Pamela Flitton who seems to be driven by nothing but anger and her own desires. And Widmerpool has been a man driven from the opening pages of the first book, our first encounter with the man where his personality was already on display, and here his nature is fully displayed. His actions, if what is alleged about him is true, are shocking and appalling. Truly, he and Pamela deserve each other.

Presumably the dreadful Kenneth!

Presumably the dreadful Kenneth!

It’s fascinating seeing Nick moving in the higher echelons of power, and his description of a visit to a secure meeting in a bunker-style room is very telling:

“In this brightly lit dungeon lurked a sense that no one could spare a word, not a syllable, far less gesture, not of direct value in implementing the matter in hand The power principle could almost be felt here, humming and vibrating like the drumming of the teleprinter. The sensation that resulted was oppressive, even a shade alarming.”

The military attaches, with their various temperaments and peculiarities, are an engaging bunch and the interplay between them is a joy. And then there is a very unexpected reunion at the end…

Saying much more will risk spoilers so I won’t; all I *will* say is that the more I read of Powell, the more convinced I become of his mastery as a writer – the blurb on the back of my edition calling the sequence “the greatest modern novel since Ulysses” and “one of English fiction’s few twentieth century masterpieces” doesn’t exaggerate!