21 JANUARY 2006, Page 30

Duty and pleasure in happy tandem

Alistair Irwin

A BRITISH ACHILLES by Lorna Almonds Windmill Pen & Sword, £19.99, pp. 278, ISBN 1844153541 ✆ £15.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 Ihave never met the 2nd Earl Jellicoe. I wish I had because to shake hands with this remarkable man, the Achilles of the title, would be to shake hands with honour, courage and duty fulfilled. If the author has him right it would also be to shake hands with wisdom, fun and a whiff of the piratical.

It is almost certainly a disadvantage to enter the world as the son of a nationally revered father, but this account of George Jellicoe’s life to date proves that famous men can indeed beget men famous in their turn. Three hedonistic but purposeful years in the company of the upper echelons of British and European society, and at Cambridge, formed a prelude to war. Jellicoe’s war, mostly in the SAS and SBS, could hardly have been more out of the ordinary, exciting or, for the reader, stirring. His is an enviable record of behindthe-lines action against the King’s enemies, epitomised by winning a DSO as a 24-yearold lieutenant — a rare distinction indeed for one so junior.

All this takes up roughly half the book. The second half is devoted to a well-handled review of a no less admirable record of 60 years of public service as a diplomat, politician and businessman, much respected and liked by all from royalty to ministry driver. We are reminded that reform of the House of Lords, pensions for public servants and Iraq are not new questions. In each of these Jellicoe played a distinguished part three decades and more ago; it would have been instructive to learn what he thinks about the latest imbroglio in the Garden of Eden. His Achilles’ heel — women — is gradually and sensitively exposed, culminating in the chapter dealing with his profoundly honourable resignation from Heath’s government. It is the best in the book, with a pace and sympathy that draws the reader into the depths of a brief personal tragedy.

The author has relied heavily on interviews with both Jellicoe and those other scarcely less notable characters orbiting in the same galaxy. The result is somewhat anecdotal in nature; many of the words, though not shown in quotes, seem to have more of the contributor than the author in them. This gives the book a certain charm that a more literary work might lack. But it also gives us infelicities which, though no doubt appealing in conversation, spring jarringly from the page; we are told for example that an army medical inspection passed Jellicoe as ‘fit to get killed’. There are tantalising glimpses of the unexplained; why was that inspection preceded by ‘some embarrassment’? It is careless to refer to Lord Gowrie’s ‘bomb plotter father-in-law’ without explaining that this was Fritzi von der Schulenburg, executed for his part in the attempted coup against Hitler. The maps are unusually good, but the laughable diagram depicting the raid on a German desert airfield is superfluous, and there are too many endnotes, most of which add nothing while interrupting the flow in the struggle to locate them.

But these are clever-clogs carpings. This intriguing book will rightly appeal to a wide audience. It describes a modest but exceptional man from whom the contemporary soldier, politician and citizen can learn how to enjoy life (and how not to) while doing his duty for the sake of others. Can we hope that there are more from his polymath mould waiting to make their mark on the nation’s life?