Friends and Heroes opens in 1941 with Harriet Pringle in Athens anxiously waiting to see if her husband Guy will escape successfully from Nazi-occupied Bucharest. He does, but he shouldn’t really be joining his wife in Athens; his orders are to head for Cairo. This will have implications later when he and his fellows are jockeying for position and employment in what is known as “the organisation” (the British Council). Of immediate concern, however, is Guy’s seeming indifference to his wife’s needs and wishes. Harriet, given that they are in Athens with nothing to do, wants to do some sight-seeing with her husband: the Parthenon being top of the list. Guy, however, would prefer to go directly to the organisation to assess the lay of the land. Understandable given that without a salary from the organisation, he and Harriet will have nothing to live on. Yet it reestablishes a previous pattern – Guy is always seeking to busy himself elsewhere, and expecting her to take second place whether it be to the play he put on in The Spoilt City, the revue or his preoccupation with left-wing politics in Friends and Heroes. While Harriet lives with her disappointment better in Athens than in Bucharest – she has distractions, more of which anon – she does eventually challenge him. Guy’s response is typical of his carelessness …
Having married her, he simply ceased to see her as another person. She had once accused him of considering her feelings less than those of anyone else with whom they came into contact. Surprised, he had said: “But you are myself. I don’t need to consider your feelings.”
And so to Harriet’s distractions: 1) she gets a job – I’m not entirely sure what it involves, but she’s in the same offices as other backstabbing British Council employees; 2) Charles Warden, a young officer, who befriends Harriet in Athens. Befriends? It’s a prickly relationship, Charles, who is not from the same laidback (I’m being kind here) mould as Guy, obviously wants more than Harriet is willing to give, until the moment that Harriet is willing to give it, when unforeseen circumstances and a blast from the Bucharest past intervene … So not a sexual affair, but it is, without doubt, an emotional adultery.
Humans will be humans: emotional lives and professional rivalries continue despite the troubled times in which these characters live. First there is the declaration of war on Greece by Italy followed by the Greek victory, which is celebrated with joy and bell-ringing every step of the way. The true cost, though, becomes apparent only after the Germans have deceived Yugoslavia and blitzkrieg their way down Greece to Athens, despite reinforcements from allied forces. It turns out allied support is a mirage; they don’t really have anything to give, and the hoped-for repeat of the victory at Thermopylae is not one to be repeated.
As Nazi victory becomes certain, the British ex-pat community, including Guy and Harriet, must flee once more. Cue more treachery as some try to surreptitiously escape at the cost of those they are prepared to leave behind. Fortunately they are thwarted and the final page turns with Guy and Harriet on a decrepit old boat sailing across the Mediterranean to Cairo.
While I will be following them by reading The Levant Trilogy in 2022, it now time to say farewell to professional sponger, Prince Yakimov, whose days ended suddenly in Athens. While I never warmed to poor Yaki my thoughts, like Harriet’s, remain with Alan, the lonely man and his dog, Diocletian, who had loved Greece and the Greeks, and could not bear to leave them.