Monty: as sexy as a penguin

The Full Monty
December 7, 2001

"Few subjects are more fascinating than other people's sexual habits from the outside," remarks the novelist Anthony Powell, or his alter ego, teasing out war-torn manners and mores in The Military Philosophers ; "the tangled strands of appetite, tenderness, convenience or some hope of gain". So it seems for Nigel Hamilton, whose new, improved and unauthorised version of his authorised biography (published in three volumes, 1981-86) contains the miracle ingredient: sex. To add insult to injury, as someone is bound to say, it is sex of the wrong sort. This is deplorable, of course, but we must be grateful for small mercies. It is not sex as such, evidently, but repressed, sublimated, or simply not enacted. The sex, therefore, is not seminal but "homosocial" - to borrow from Hamilton - scant consolation for the affronted.

The affronted, as ever, are numerous and strong. The tumbrils have been turning at the The Times and The Daily Telegraph . It will not be long before the knights of the shires are exercising their apoplexy in the letters columns (the only columns they can command), mobilising in the anterooms of the Royal United Services Institute, and reaching convulsively for the horsewhip in the hall.

The impenitent author can hope for nothing less. Plainly, The Full Monty is a deliberate provocation. The title alone - a nudge too far, surely, even with covering etymology - is an incitement. All of that is very welcome. Regardless of personal dignity or tribal loyalty, there is ample scope for sedition. In the cornucopia of contemporary life writing, full of exhilarating tracings and cross-breedings, military biography is for the most part a desiccated exception - artistically and intellectually impoverished, conservative in stance and style alike, dwarfed in everything but length by its literary counterpart. Stirring up the dry bones would be a creative jolt, long overdue.

Interpretatively, however, doubts creep in. Is there a risk that, amid the sound and fury, Montgomery of Alamein slips through the fingers? Monty himself would not have subscribed to the abiding fascination of sexual habits or predilections, so far as we can tell. As individuals, other people were of no great interest to him. Socially he was snow-blind. Sexual habits were roughly on a par with, say, taste in wine. In each instance he did not partake himself, but he knew or thought he knew quite sufficient to provide for others' needs. In this field of human conquest, though manifestly not in others, his appetite seems to have been very small.

Moreover, he was intensely self-absorbed. Thanks to the industry of Hamilton, we now know that Monty's love letters, hetero or homosocial, were case studies in the jarring juxtapositions to which he was not only blind but deaf ("I miss you more than I can say... Montgomery of Alamein"), and that his chat-up line was all about tanks and battles - that is to say, about himself - and we can guess that his pillow talk, if one can imagine such a thing, would have continued in much the same vein.

"Darling."

"Yes darling."

"I have become very attached to you. So much so that I discuss confidential matters that I have never done with anyone before, and probably will never do again. I would like you to look upon me as a real friend."

"Yes darling."

"All my friends call me Monty. If you feel you can hardly do this, you can call me General Monty."

"Yes..."

His own attested encounters outbid invented pastiche. Giving a schoolboy a lift home in his car: "Do you know who I am?", "No."

"I'm a field marshal. Do you know what that is?" "Oh yes, you work in the fields. I want to work in the fields when I grow up. I'm going to drive a tractor. What do you do?", "I kill people." Pause.

"I think I'll get out now."

His appetite for renown was voracious, and not confined to nine-year-olds. It grew with the eating into gargantuan claims on posterity. Renown would follow success on the battlefield. Success on the battlefield would follow a master plan. The master plan was Monty's pièce de résistance , at once crutch and touchstone. The plan was paramount. Nothing and no one could be permitted to deviate from it. The penalty for doing so was denial, in various forms, and ruthless excision or excommunication, as appropriate. As chief of the imperial general staff after the war, Monty filleted the files of classified documents in which he had a direct interest, burnt those that linked him in any way with the abortive raid on Dieppe in August 1942 - that orphan operation revisited in the new version - and simply purloined the rest.

Concerning the battles that made his name, it was Monty's extraordinary skill in appreciation and dissemination, in coining and selling, that marked him out from any other field commander in the western theatre of war - theatre being the operative word. As sold to the troops in a whirlwind of tightly choreographed personal appearances, his plan for the battle of Alamein in October-November 1942 was devastatingly simple. Phase one: break-in. Phase two: dogfight. Phase three: breakout. The killing, he told them, would last ten days. Hardly anyone flinched. Armoured in the aura of his self-belief, he was utterly convincing. It is an inquiry into the source of Monty's fervent belief and its almost equally striking effect, perhaps best encapsulated as remoralising, that is at the heart of this recension. Hamilton's preferred explanation or master concept is something in the nature of "a homosocial compact" between Monty and his men, in particular the young Hectors and Lysanders of his inner circle. This is not exactly new but is sufficiently strongly stated to give older readers conniption fits, with unpleasant side-effects for all ages, should they happen to be affected by the author's derogatory treatment of Monty's bugbears, past and present (see under "Gort, Field Marshal, brain" or "Barnett, Corelli, on military morale raising" in the excellent index). Hamilton is a good bare-knuckle fighter, but he is apt to appear unrefined in the ticklish arena of psychosocial dysfunction.

Certainly Monty needed the approbation of others. He liked to know that his men "approved" of him, and spoke of himself, revealingly, as the army's commander but also the men's mascot. All this was part of his professional mastery. Ultimately, professional mastery meant self-mastery - the example set by his patron and protector throughout the war, Alanbrooke, the paradigm military professional for Monty's generation. In Monty's case, however, self-mastery shaded into monomania. The roots of that strange psychology are brilliantly laid bare in Anthony Powell's fictionalised encounter with "the field marshal", in apposition to the revered Alanbrooke: "On the one hand, there had been hardly a trace of the almost overpowering physical impact of the CIGS, that curious electric awareness felt down to the tips of one's fingers of a given presence imparting a sense of stimulation, also the consoling thought that someone of the sort was at the top. On the other hand, the Field Marshal's outward personality offered what was perhaps even less usual, willpower, not so much natural, as developed to altogether exceptional lengths. No doubt there had been a generous basic endowment, but of not the essentially magnetic quality. In short, the will here might be even more effective from being less dramatic. It was an immense, wiry, calculated, insistent hardness, rather than a force like champagne bursting from a bottle... One felt that a great deal of time and trouble, even intellectual effort of its own sort, had gone into producing this final result."

This feels right. It was the potent mix of calculation and dedication that called him forward; the fanatic professionalism and fixity of will, shared by another commander-in-chief in a different but equally draconian domain: Bomber Harris, Montgomery's dark shadow (and a commander he admired). The bells were rung for Alamein. No bell rang for Cologne, Hamburg, or Dresden. If "Monty" was the good fairy in a good war, "Butch" was the wicked witch in a bad one. Yet it was the same war and they had a lot in common. In both cases, the atmosphere and trappings of their military menages were redolent not of a social compact but of a religious order. Powell caught a whiff of this too. "There was a faint a faraway reminder of the clergy; parsonic, yet not in the least numinous, the tone of the incumbent ruthlessly dedicated to his parish, rather than the hierophant celebrating divine mysteries. At the same time, one guessed that this parish priest regarded himself as in a high class of hierophancy too, whatever others might think." The hierophant is one who shows or reveals sacred things, an expounder. That is Monty to a tee, the messianic monk of war.

The Full Monty does not have much time for what Alan Bennett might call the monastic department, but is itself a little messianic in its over-eagerness to bring enlightenment pell-mell to the benighted military and their followers, camp and other. Neither the master concept nor the overall presentation of Monty as the turner of the tide of the second world war, is entirely persuasive. Both suffer from a certain lack of perspective. Sexually, Hamilton buttresses his case by calling in aid a number of other works (including, I confess, one of mine) that explore related personalities or pathologies. Nevertheless, this is an exceedingly small and narrowly drawn sampling of a subject area full of pitfalls, to put it mildly. It seems to me that the proposition being advanced calls for a more variegated and differentiated approach than anything attempted here, embracing not only class and generation, but also occupation or avocation. Monty's courtship ritual, for example, bears a striking resemblance to that of his contemporary Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the polar explorer, not to mention the penguin.

Strategically, the tide was turned in the second world war by the Soviets, engaging 190 German divisions on the Eastern Front in conditions of unimaginable savagery at a time when the full Monty in the Western Desert amounted to just three. For Britain and its invincible island mythology the victory at Alamein was vastly important. After three fruitless years of struggle, the Desert Rats had found a leader and the pummelled nation a winner, at last. Elsewhere, in the big league of the global war, Alamein was a sideshow, and Montgomery an excrescence. The next volume is announced as The Impact of Fame . It is a long story.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

The Full Monty: Montgomery of Alamein 1887-1942

Author - Nigel Hamilton
ISBN - 0 713 99334 0
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 902

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