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One From the Vault

Beat the Devil

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

My father wrote Beat the Devil in 1949, some of it in the house we had just acquired three miles outside Youghal, County Cork, and some in a summer cottage taken for August in the tiny village of Ardmore, which was all of eight miles away, across the Blackwater in County Waterford. These were the years immediately after his departure from London and from the Communist Party in 1947 and the name Cockburn did not have benign associations for the publishers and magazine editors crucial to our well-being. Since my father had left the Party without fanfare it took a while for his absence to register; then finally the security forces, in the form of the Special Branch and the Daily Express, sent men to investigate. In the absence of nutritious commentary from either my father or the locals the investigators concentrated on my father’s locomotive resources. The man from the Special Branch established by zealous questioning – all subsequently related to us – that boat, train and car had been the various means assisting my father’s translation from London to Youghal, while all the Express man could report was that the ex-Red was now using a bicycle to get about, ‘head down against the wind and,’ he asked dramatically, ‘against the Party line?’

Neither my father nor my mother could drive and, for that matter, we wouldn’t have been able to afford a car. But Ireland, or at least our particular part of it, was still essentially a nineteenth-century rural society and the cost of living was negligible by present-day standards; and anyway the pretensions of genteel poverty have never been part of the Anglo-Irish sensibility. You could be flat broke with rain pouring through the roof and bailiffs pouring down the drive and still hold head high – in our case, above the handlebars of the famous bicycle or in the horse and trap which was our alternative means of transportation. This was just as well because we were indeed flat broke, even though my father, banging away on his elderly Underwood, had developed a whole family of pseudonyms to try to confine the wolf at least to the hallway of our spacious and draughty Georgian house.

My father later wrote in his memoirs that a guest had described in the visitors’ book what he called the ‘literary colony’ at Youghal:

He claimed to have met Frank Pitcairn, ex-correspondent of the Daily Worker a grouchy, disillusioned type secretly itching to dash out and describe a barricade. There was Claude Cockburn, founder and editor of The Week, talkative, boastful of past achievements, and apt, at the drop of a hat, to tell, at length, the inside story of some forgotten diplomatic crisis of the 1930s. Patrick Cork would look in – a brash little number, and something of a professional Irishman, seeking, no doubt, to live up to his name. James Helvick lived in and on the establishment, claiming that he needed quiet with plenty of good food and drink to enable him to finish a play and a novel which soon would bring enough money to repay all costs. In the background, despised by the others as a mere commercial hack, Kenneth Drew hammered away at the articles which supplied the necessities of the colony’s life.

‘James Helvick’, the name under which Beat the Devil was originally published, had been my mother’s suggestion. Across the bay from Ardmore the long green finger of Helvick Head poked out into the sea and in the end its borrowed name decorated my father’s first three novels – Beat the Devil, Overdraft on Glory and The Horses. These were all written in the 1950s. When my father returned to fiction with Ballantyne’s Folly in 1970 and Jericho Road in 1974, they were launched under the true colors of his own name.

Beat The Devil was published at the beginning of the fifties, in England by Boardman and in the US by Lippincott. Both are now defunct, at least as houses publishing trade books. The advance against royalties provided by Boardman was, to my mother’s recollection, somewhere between £200 and £300, and the sum for American rights was $750. This sort of money, though not as paltry as it now appears, did not long stay the bailiffs and things were looking bad as we went off to stay, for the Dublin Horse Show week, with Oonagh Oranmore at Luggala, her house in the Wicklow mountains.

Quite apart from the simple comfort of not having water on the floor and bailiffs at the gate, Luggala was a wonderful place to go in the early and mid-1950s. Writers and artists from Dublin, London, Paris and New York drank and sang through the long hectic meals with a similarly dissolute throng of politicians and members-in-good-standing of the café society of the time. And during this particular Horse Show week Luggala was further dignified by the presence of the film director John Huston and his wife of those years, Ricky. My father was a friend of Huston – from his stint in New York in the late 1920s perhaps, or maybe from Spanish Civil War days – and quite apart from the pleasures of reunion there was Beat the Devil, ready and waiting to be converted into a film by the famous director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

My father spoke urgently to Huston of the virtues of Beat the Devil, but he found he had given, beneath fulsome dedications, his last two copies to our hostess and to a fellow guest, Terry Kilmartin. These copies were snatched back and thrown into Huston’s departing taxi. A week later Huston was in Dublin again, shouting the novel’s praises. He and Humphrey Bogart had just completed The African Queen and were awaiting the outcome of that enormous gamble. I can remember Huston calling Bogart in Hollywood and reading substantial portions of the novel to him down the phone – a deed which stayed with me for years as the acme of extravagance.

By the time Huston and his wife came down to Youghal to talk more about the screenplay he couldn’t read Beat the Devil down the phone, not ours at least, because it had been cut off for non-payment of bills. Telegrams shuttled back and forth between Youghal and Hollywood and finally the offer came: £3,000 for rights and screenplay, or a lesser sum up front, against a greater, but as yet insubstantial reward – the famous ‘points’ – in the distant future. My father naturally took the lump sum on the barrel, used some of it to plug the roof and appease the bailiffs and then went to work with Huston on the screenplay.

The film had a sumptuous cast: Bogart, Peter Lorre, Gina Lollobrigida, Jennifer Jones, Robert Morley. When it finally got to Youghal there was a great to-do in the form of a grand screening at Horgan’s Cinema. The people of Youghal, not entirely without reason, found it incomprehensible but applauded heartily, none more so, I imagine, than the bailiffs and other representatives of the commercial sector of the town.

Though not an immediate success, the film of Beat the Devil has developed a cult following over the years, and in the US quite often bobs up on late night TV. One aspect of this cult caused some irritation to my father and indeed to the rest of the family. The film’s credits announced the screenplay was by Truman Capote, from a novel by James Helvick. Admirers of the film professed to find evidence of Capote’s mastery in every interstice of the dialogue and over the years Capote did nothing to dissuade them from this enthusiasm. But in fact his own contribution was limited to some concluding scenes, for it had chanced that during the final days of shooting in Italy the end had suddenly to be altered: as far as I can remember, the locale of the scenes had to be changed in a hurry. In the emergency, with my father back in Ireland, Capote, who happened to be visiting the set at the time, was drafted to do the necessary work and his name – more alluring than that of the unknown Helvick or the ex-Red Cockburn – scrambled into the credits. Although reissued as a paperback in 1971 Beat the Devil has been, till now, almost unobtainable and it’s not the least of my pleasures that admirers of the film may now see that the inspiration for that dialogue came not from Capote but from my father.

As a comedy-thriller of manners Beat the Devil has lasted well. Aside from a short story published by Ezra Pound in The Dial in the 1920s my father had previously written no fiction. From a writer whose chief occupation for twenty-five years had been political journalism, set at high volume, the lightness and poise of the novel are remarkable. Sententiousness, let alone sentimentality, is never, even surreptitiously, imported into the rapid dialogue in which most of the action is expressed. There is no interior monologue, nor are any thoughts ascribed to any of the characters. I can remember my father once explaining his formal resolve to set forth the story in the modalities (ineluctable, no doubt) solely of the visible and the audible.

Only recently departed from England himself, my father chose to tell a story of exile in which the keynote was moral illusion. The raffish bunch gathered in a hotel in the south of France are all fragrant with imperial decay: the adventurer Dannreuther, fixit-man for the crooks hoping to make a killing in Kivu province in the Belgian Congo; Mr O’Hara, the Pomeranian con-man; Jack Ross, the murderous Major; and of course the Chelms, haughty Harry and the lovely liar Gwendolen.

Everyone knows that so far as England is concerned, the shot is no longer on the board:

‘What I feel is,’ explained Chelm carefully, ‘that in England under present conditions …’

‘Absolutely right. You can’t beat the game. I tell you, England … Europe … the game’s up.’

Before this assertion Chelm decorously hesitated.

‘I don’t know that I’d exactly lump England and the rag-tag and bobtail of Europe together. There are certain qualities which … Of course,’ he repeated like a ritual, ‘under present conditions …’

But Dunnreuther was paying no attention. Emphatically he developed his view that Europe as a paying proposition was finished. He quoted figures, voluminously and with gusto. it came out as a statistical funeral chant.

‘But the Americans,’ said Chelm.

‘The Americans fiddlesticks,’ shouted Dannreuther. ‘Anything that’s going, they’ll get.’

Having spent a considerable part of his formative years in central Europe my father had a highly developed ear for the British national fantasy, expressed in Beat the Devil usually either by Chelm or by Dannreuther’s Hungarian wife Maria, who proudly boasts of her liberalism: ‘In Hungary you know, my family were great liberals. That is why they were beloved. My father could ride from our own gates right down to the village, even after dark, without risk of being shot at.’ Maria, brought up to esteem all things English, is attracted to obtuse Chelm, just as Damreuther is drawn to the adventurous Gwendolen:

‘You know,’ said Mrs Dannreuther, lying on the bed and playing with her big bracelet, ‘if I ever leave you it will be for someone of the type of Harry Chelm … that type of Englishman is like a story my father once told me long ago in Hungary. We were in the garden of our country place there, and my father told me about a gardener, an English gardener in England, at Oxford, I think it was, who was showing some Americans one of those wonderful English lawns, and of course they wanted to know how to make a lawn like that, and this English gardener said …’

‘I know damn well what the gardener said,’ shouted Dannreuther . . . ‘He said all you had to do was get some good grass and then roll it every day for some six hundred years or some such howling nonsense. I heard that gardener thing before you were born. English people tell it when they feel poor.’

The paradox of good intentions was something that preoccupied my father in much of his work in fiction – most finely in his last (and I think finest) novel, Jericho Road, where the generous impulse of the Good Samaritan in rescuing the waylaid traveller provokes such unpleasant consequences. The same paradox is studied in Ballantyne’s Folly (which Graham Greene has set beside Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday) and it is present in Beat the Devil. The befuddled Chelm, impelled by options of what would be the ‘British thing to do’ tries to get the Nyanga’s engines going again, with unfortunate results; Gwendolen tells lies to improve her husband’s fortunes, once again with results quite the reverse of her expectations.

The reason for my father’s long engagement with this paradox is not hard to find. A reformer – in his case a revolutionary reformer, given his long activities in the international Communist movement – must inevitably ponder the consequences of his high intentions. But now the temptation for my father, flat broke in 1949 and writing Beat the Devil, was to write the familiar 50,000 words denouncing Communism and his Party associates. Given the offers he was being made to do just this, to have succumbed would have been richly rewarded. But as his father used to quote to him from Juvenal, ‘Nec propter vitam vivendi perdere causas’ (Just for the sake of living, don’t lose the reasons for living) and my father never flirted with the notion for a moment. In Beat the Devil the character of Billy Dannreuther is a sour commentary on good intentions, temptation and, in a double twist, on the paradox of bad intentions too. O’Hara puts it this way to Dannreuther:

‘You … have had many imaginary objectives. Partly real, mainly imaginary

People said you were a second Lawrence. You believed you were absorbed in organizing some good forces against some bad ones … Not so very far from where we now sit. Dannreuther-Lawrence … running guns to Spaniards. But you quit in the middle.’

‘It was the end,’ said Dannreuther …

‘Quits,’ pursued O’Hara, ‘and here he is the adviser of quite a different kind of expedition. Much simpler. Hunting money and nothing else. And this you will not quit because all along, you see, though all these illusions, your real objective has been something different from what you thought.’

‘Do tell,’ said Dannreuther.

‘It has been,’ said O’Hara ‘the same as my own. Money and peace. So simple. Nothing more. Money and peace.’

O’Hara’s is that same voice of the tempter who urged my father towards the broad path of betrayal. But by the end of the novel O’Hara himself gives the answer, when Dannreuther asks him if he will go on looking for money and peace: ‘At my age this must be seen to be an illusion. There is no such possibility.’

Against the illusions and velleities of the voyagers to Africa is set the character of the Spanish police chief, prototype of a much more ample version in Jericho Road Here there are no paradoxes – merely the raw, uncomplicated search for money and the peace that money brings. As Dannreuther is trying to get his group out of the police chief’s jail, he finally approaches the matter of the actual bribe:

It came in earnest to the money at the next interview. Money for the ruthless and passionate, for the superior man with his own opinions and moral judgments. Money for a villa in the hills behind Buenos Aires, money for the attraction and subjection of gorgeous Argentine women who with passion, and a sophistication unknown in the villages of Andalusia, unknown in the brothels even of Granada, even of Malaga, even, by God, of Madrid, would expend themselves in ministering to the desires of the superior man, the super-man who with ruthless intelligence saw and seized opportunity, rose above his fellows, marched forward, did not miss the bus. Dollars and women danced and twisted back and forth across the desk of the Chief of Police.

‘There is a point,’ said he, ‘on which I would like your opinion – as a man of the world … would you say, yourself, that in, for example, Buenos Aires, among smart people, the Packard or the Cadillac is considered the more chic?’

‘In your position,’ said Dannreuther, ‘there will be no need for you to decide. You will, I imagine, have one of each.’

In his next novel, Overdraft on Glory, my father studied the glory and greatness of good intentions. It was a much warmer affair than Beat the Devil with its dégagé nonchalance. But Overdraft on Glory was, to my father’s sorrow, one of his less successful books and its fate contributed to his return to weekly journalism through the 1960s.

It is heartening to see Beat the Devil published again. The sight of it provokes some vivid memories. One is of Huston. I had never met an American so theatrical in so grand a manner before. He could turn everything into an occasion. When he entered a room he would rearrange people, as though in preparation for a camera shot. There was a tiresome chore at our house outside Youghal, which was swinging a hand pump to and fro for about forty minutes a morning (an hour if more than two baths were taken) to fill the tank upstairs from the old well. Huston contrived that he and my father would swing the pump together, somehow transforming the task into one of archetypal grandeur. One would have thought they were Moses and Yahweh himself, rising water from the desert.

We saw a good deal of him because after the completion of Beat the Devil he returned to Youghal, having decided to recreate New Bedford here for his version of Moby Dick. By this time he had bought a house in Galway and was very much the grand squire. When he would appear at hunt balls in full ceremonial hunting rig and foxes’ masks embossed in gold thread on his pumps the Anglo-Irish gentry would snigger, but he hypnotised them all the same. When Jean-Paul Sartre visited him in Galway in 1959 to work on his script of Freud, he sent back two extremely funny letters to Simone de Beauvoir, later printed in Lettres à Castor, about Ireland and about aspects of Huston. He found the bare Galway countryside to be a moonscape and remarked:

This is exactly what makes up the interior landscape of my boss, the great Huston. Ruins, abandoned houses, wastelands, marshes, a thousand traces of the human presence, but the man himself has left, I don’t know where … Almost every night he invites the strangest sort of guests: the richest heir in England, a rajah who is also an innkeeper (a big hotel in Kashmir), an Irish master of fox-hounds, an American producer, an English director. And he says nothing to them. Arlette and I came into the drawing room at a moment when Huston was chatting languidly to the master of hounds, a broadbacked young man with a red nose, trés gentleman farmer. We were introduced and the ‘major’ said that he didn’t know French. Huston banged him on the shoulder and said, ‘Well, I’ll leave you to practise your French,’ and went off, leaving us there feeling stupid. Panic-stricken, the major rolled his eyes and finally said, ‘Churchill is funny when he speaks French.’ I said ‘Ha, ha’ and silence fell until we were called into dinner.

I remember at about that time seeing Huston ride in a re-creation of the first steeple chase, which was run between Buttevant and Doneraile, in County Cork. He was doing well on a horse called Naso, until he saw a television camera team. Although he was in the middle of a tricky jump onto a bank he turned towards the camera, smiled and doffed his cap. Off balance as the horse rose, he took a most tremendous toss and crashed heavily to the ground.

Aside from Huston and the little house in Ardmore facing Helvick Head (a view enjoyed by my father until the day he died – for in the end we moved to Ardmore permanently, to a house right across the road from that one where he had written Beat the Devil thirty years before), I can remember with extraordinary clarity a moment in London. After my father had agreed with Huston to take the money up front we traveled to London for a couple of weeks. I remember sitting in a hotel room with my mother and father and their friend Maurice Richardson, waiting for the cheque to arrive. I don’t think we could go out till it did. There was a call from downstairs and in came a waiter with an envelope on a tray. There was silence as my father opened it and then volleys of cheers as they danced about, passing the cheque from hand to hand and shouting for champagne. I was ten and not interested in champagne.

‘Does this mean I can have a new bicycle?’ I shouted up.

‘Yes, yes,’ they beamed down. ‘Of course you can have a new bicycle.’ – 1985.

Alexander Cockburn’s most recent book is Guillotined.