PADDY ASHDOWN is busy when I telephone. He’s bringing his onions in from his Somerset
PADDY ASHDOWN is busy when I telephone. He’s bringing his onions in from his Somerset garden and asks me to ring back.
“It’s the village flower show,” he explains five minutes later. “We’re normally away in France at this time of year but my wife had a knee operation.
“But we’re both avid gardeners, and so for the first time for several years I’m about to enter the village flower show — and sweep the board, I can tell you. You should see the size of my onions, they’re huge!”
Is he entering any other categories? “All the categories,” he laughs. “Beans, sweet peas, all the usual. We have a basket of vegetables, some of my wife’s flowers — I think we’re entering six categories. You know what village flower shows are like.”
Paddy — now Lord — Ashdown, clearly knows his onions. And a lot more besides.
His success or otherwise in the village flower show is currently not known — but perhaps a Henley Standard reader might care to ask him how he got on when he appears at the town’s literary festival later this month.
He is booked to give a talk at the Kenton Theatre at 6.30pm on Tuesday, September 27. But hurry if you want tickets — his 2014 event at the festival was a sell-out.
His festival appearance this year is well-timed, coming just five days after the publication of his latest book, Game of Spies, on September 22.
Set in occupied France between 1942 and 1944, this sets out to tell the story of what Ashdown calls “France’s greatest betrayal”.
Revolving around three men — the ruthless British secret agent Roger Landes, the Gestapo counter-espionage officer charged with finding him, Friedrich Dohse, and the aristocratic and right-wing French resistance leader André Grandclément — Game of Spies uncovers the bitter duel they fought in an atmosphere of collaboration, betrayal and assassination.
The book is a companion piece to Ashdown’s 2012 bestseller A Brilliant Little Operation: The Cockleshell Heroes and the Most Courageous Raid of WW2, which told the story of Operation Frankton — the legendary December 1942 commando raid on shipping in the German-occupied port of Bordeaux.
As Ashdown explains: “It tells you what went on in Bordeaux at the time the raid took place. It gives you the background but it’s a totally different story. It’s about the duel between the three men — these characters that I first came across when I wrote A Brilliant Little Operation, and they fascinated me. This is another story about derring-do. It’s a story about courage, certainly, but also human relationships and betrayal and love affairs and all of those things — all the things that go on in these circumstances.”
Lest we forget, Ashdown’s own miltary career saw him serve with the Royal Marines, for whom he commanded a company in Belfast. He was an officer in the Special Boat Service, later joining MI6 as an intelligence officer.
Factor in his 11 years as leader of the Liberal Democrats from 1988 to 1999 and you realise that Ashdown must have seen plenty of human nature in extremis.
As he puts it: “Espionage is conducted amongst ordinary people and ordinary lives. The really important part of this book is how three people reacted — not to great events but to the backwash of great events. Almost everything is counterintuitive. I mean, arguably the nicest man in the book is the Gestapo officer. He doesn’t kill anybody at all. Whereas almost everybody else...” Ashdown laughs gently.
“He doesn’t torture anybody either. He takes them out for lunch to get them to talk. Very, very clever counterintelligence operator, a very cultivated man and the person who defeated the British secret agent Roger Landes — probably the greatest secret agent we had in France, but he’s utterly ruthless, utterly focused, he’s going about his business but also extremely clever. I mean cunning more than clever.”
In the introduction to Game of Spies, which was written in collaboration with Sylvie Young, Ashdown explains that what gave the book lift-off, so to speak, was the astonishing revelation that Dohse had written a memoir — and that the papers were lodged in the Bordeaux archives.
“We discovered it through an academic,” recalls Ashdown. “He said ‘These exist and it would be nice to dig it out.’ We realised what we had — a great discovery which enabled me to trace these three men’s lives almost on a daily basis. No memoirs of a Gestapo agent have ever been discovered — it’s the only memoirs of a Gestapo agent even written.”
As Ashdown tells it, it’s only the brute willingness to do the digging around that makes possible the sort of books he wants to write.
“I always look to spend probably two years on each book delving through archives. I’m fascinated by making history live — but also making sure it’s totally accurate and in finding those little tiny bits of information that other people can’t find.
“I’m just starting my next one now, probably, and it will take me two or three years of research in the French archives and in this case the German archives — and a lot in the British archives in Kew, of course.”
Ashdown may be every inch the historian these days, but he’s far from living in the past.
At the end of July, a month on from the referendum on UK membership of the European Union, Ashdown was one of the co-founders of MoreUnited.uk — billed as a liberal and progressive cross-party political movement. A clue to his thinking comes on only the second page of Game of Spies, where he writes: “Looking back today, it seems to me extraordinary that our besieged little country committed so many of its young men and women and so many of its resources to secret and extremely hazardous operations to free the countries of Europe, which we have now chosen to be no part of.”
Is that not rather a blunt way of reading the EU referendum vote?
“I register my dismay at how far this country has come, you know, from a country that the rest of Europe looked to for liberation and which reached out into Europe to a country that has retreated, I think, into something with a spirit of isolationism, even if it’s not isolationism. And I find that very sad.
“I think there can be no doubt that our relationship with Europe will be different and will be weaker. We may compensate for that — I would start with stronger relationships elsewhere in the world, if that’s possible.
“But no one will doubt, I think, in Britain or indeed in Europe, that Britain’s engagement in Europe — in the continent — is weakened as a result of Brexit.
“Now look, this is not in any way to try and revisit the Brexit decision — the decision’s been taken and I believe it will now be carried through. It will be up to everybody who’s a democrat and a patriot to accept that decision, as I do, and then try to build out of it the best we can.
“But I’m not going to pretend that I think the best we can build out of that is as good as it would have been if we’d have stayed in, which is much more, it seems to me, in our tradition — and the book shows that.”
Tickets for Paddy Ashdown at the Kenton Theatre on September 27 are £12.50. To enquire about availability, call the Henley Literary Festival box office on (01491) 575948 between 10am and 4pm on weekdays or visit www.henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk