With apologies to the late James W. Best for appropriating his image (from his 1935 Forest Life in India)

Monday, 12 August 2013

Down to Earth...

I was in a secondhand-book shop the other day rummaging semi-blindly – it was a dark and dingy place, and having just stepped out of the rain I was having trouble with my glasses steaming up – and I was just wondering to myself why all the stock seemed to be priced (in pencil) at £10.00 when I spotted an unassuming-looking volume called Spies and Saboteurs priced at ‘£1 .00’. Note the space between the 1 and the decimal point. A quick scan of the first few pages was enough to tell me it would be an instant addition to my ‘Best Books Ever Read’ list and I went straight downstairs to pay for it. The owner looked at the price inside and hesitated, but it wasn’t me who had rubbed out the 0 (honest) and he had no choice but to charge only the one pound for it. Anyway, what about the actual book? Published by Gollancz in 1955, it is American psychologist William J. Morgan’s account of assessing OSS (Office of Strategic Services) candidates in England in WWII. Successful candidates were parachuted into France as... spies and saboteurs. Written in wonderfully plain English – one chapter is headed ‘Minefield and Acid Bath’ – it is a fascinating insight into how the brightest and bravest can make fools of themselves when tested under pressure. It is also full of amusing anecdotes. My favourite is how they early on identified one candidate as a German spy, strung him along for months on end then, when they finally dropped him over France, ‘forgot’ to attach his ripcord to the fixing-point in the plane… My copy of the book doesn’t have one, but this is what the dust jacket looked like:

(Apologies for the quality of the pic, but it was the only one I could find online.)