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Rule, Brittania!

The Clubland Heroes Are Back, and it’s Vintage Stuff Again!
The SIS Building (or MI6 Building) at Vauxhall Cross, London, houses the headquarters of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Photo: Laurie Nevay/CC BY-SA 2.0

This article is a work of fiction.

Whitehall: Early 2024

The brow of Sir Marmaduke Neighton-Bray, DSO, MC, and Chief of MI6, was furrowed. It was plain to the assembled men who had just been summoned from nearly a hundred years of retirement that Sir Marmaduke was a worried man. “Gentlemen,” he said, in a voice barely above a whisper, to signify that this was a very hush-hush operation, “gentlemen, I take it I do not have to spell out the reasons for your being here today. I refer to the events in the Middle East which is three thousand and five hundred kilometres away, where we have no business, and never have had any, except for the monstrous fact that the settled order of the world has been repeatedly disrupted by dangerous gaggles of unwashed juveniles in the city of Gaza directing rocky projectiles against their occupying Israeli soldiers. Can’t have that, what? Ask Fierce Morgan! I need hardly tell you of what the harvest has been for us, and for the civilised Western world at large. Suffice to say that England is in peril.”

“You wouldn’t think our monkey-faced citizens shared your concerns, Sir Marmaduke,” said Richard Hannay in a quiet, level voice. “Not if Rochdale, and that anarchist Galloway, are any sign of what we are up against. A foul plot against the Old Country. I knew it was all up with what once made us great when they chucked apartheid in South Africa. I’ve never been back to the Cape. Not all the memories of my pals in Jo’burg nor the spoor of the wildebeest in the veldts of Madikwe will take me back there. But if there is a fighting chance of saving apartheid somewhere in the world, count me in. I’m your man—even if I’m able to manage just around thirty-nine steps at a time.”

“Stout Fella!” murmured John Geste, once of the Foreign Legion, brother of the late Michael (‘Beau’) and Digby Geste, and steadfast friend, from the days of their desert adventures, of the Cousins Hank and Buddy from across the Atlantic. “You can count me in, too. Though it does seem, don’t you know, that we’ve changed sides somewhat. Not that we’ve had much of a choice, not after that spot of bother in ’39-’45. Why, even the Huns have flipped.”

“Sho’ thing,” opined Hank. “One gen-o-cide to make up for the earlier one. And that ain’t all. It’s Uncle Sam in charge now, and y’all are its poodles, just like Uncle Sam is AIPAC’s poodle.”

“Beggin’ to differ, Hank,” said Buddy. “Me, I should have said chihuahuas, myself.”

“Have it yer way, Buddy,” said Hank amiably.

“I’m always the first to sign up, but why us, if I may ask—considering we’re around a hundred-and-forty years old (each, I mean, not together)?” asked Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth (VC, MC, DSO, DFC), blue of eyes and square of jaw.

“It’s what Hannay has been lamenting,” said Sir Marmaduke grimly. “Things aren’t what they used to be. I find myself having to fall back on the old times, the old heroes, the old values. Our Armed Forces aren’t what they used to be. Just the other day, HMS Useless and HMS Futility collided into each other off the coast of Bahrain. Eight years ago, a Trident missile fired from a Royal Navy submarine flew off course, and after years of working on correcting the defect, last month another missile splashed into the water close to the submarine. (It needs to be said though that thanks to the ingenuity of our boys, it missed the submarine.) Just recently, a malfunction prevented HMS Prince of Wails from departing for a NATO exercise (called Steadfast Defender 2024)—a bit galling, considering that Prince of Wails was a replacement for an earlier carrier which had had to be cancelled because of a defective starboard propeller shaft coupling. Calling you fellows back is a decision that has been taken in the highest echelons of Whitehall. Any questions?”

‘I’m sure,’ said John Geste, “that I speak for all of us when I say that it’s—er—an honour and—er—a privilege and all that for us to be called to steer the vessel in this—er—hour of need, assuming that’s not an unfortunate metaphor to employ in the present circumstances. As for questions: I can think of at least one other sport who would have been the first to volunteer on an occasion such as this. ‘Bulldog’ Drummond. Why is he not here?”

“Not available,” said Sir Marmaduke tersely. Placing his finger on the side of his nose, he added, “We’ll take it on a need-to-know basis. Right now, I suggest that I spell out the contours of your present assignment. Fittingly, it will be called Operation Resounding Fail—er—Victory. Richard Hannay, you are in charge. You will follow, through our remote tracking sensors, the infiltration of Geste, Hank and Buddy into the Hamas Chief’s secret headquarters which the CIA and MI6 have now located in northern Gaza. The three of them will be disguised as camels. Bigglesworth, you will fly up from our base camp on the Israeli border with Gaza in your Camel Sopwith. The Finance fellers tell me the economy has been tanking a bit, so we haven’t quite been able to keep up with the latest advancements in aerial technology. Your job is to distract the Hamas Chief and his bodyguards with a series of aerobatics. When they step out to watch the fun, Hannay will have spotted them through his tracking sensors, and when he is assured that they have exposed themselves sufficiently to Geste and friends, he will whistle his favourite tune—‘Cherry Ripe’—which, through remote satellite technology, will be conveyed as a signal to the disguised camels for them to reach for their guns and snipe at their target. That will bring the conflict to an end. I take it there are no questions.”

“’Strewth!” said Biggles, a man of few words.


The Operation

It is a sad story, and therefore best told quickly.

For sentimental reasons, John Geste and Hank and Buddy insisted on taking the land route from Sidi Bel Abbès, via Fort Zinderneuf, to Gaza. They wasted a fair amount of time, but presumably that was how they wanted it, before they staggered to their destination. Meanwhile, Biggles took his Sopwith Camel up to its designated spot, and performed a series of Himmelmann, Zimmermann, Schwitzermann, and Rhinemann turns. He also threw in a Heinemann turn for good measure. However, this did not have the desired effect: no-one, leave alone the Hamas Chief nor any of his lieutenants, made an appearance to watch Biggles’ spectacular aerial feats. This departure from the script was very disorientating for Hannay—so disorientating that he began whistling a tune at random.

What he picked turned out to be ‘The Colonel Bogey March’. When you expect to hear ‘Cherry Ripe’ but get ‘The Colonel Bogey March’ instead, it can be severely distressing and confusing, especially when you are dressed up as a camel. So distressing and confusing indeed that the three camels unwound themselves and started firing wildly at each other.

John Geste’s last words were: “Stout Fellas!…Been a lark to have known you. Er—see you in Valhalla.”

Hank’s last words were: “You are the whitest man I ever knowed, John—a reel Bo Jest.”

Buddy’s last words were: “Sho’ thing!”

Just then, Biggles’ Camel ran out of gas. After the sanctions against Russia which rebounded on them, the West had to be very careful with its use of petrol. It is distressing to have to record that the ground crew had stinted on the fuel in Biggles’ tank. His Camel came spiralling down in a crash, as he went West, leaving him with no time to do much more than clench his square jaw, narrow his blue eyes, and mutter “’Strewth!”


The Aftermath

Back in his Whitehall office, Sir Marmaduke Brayton-Neigh straightened himself in his chair, squared his shoulders, and stuck his jaw out. One does not suppress the bulldog breed. He was not about to throw in the towel. “I’m damned if I do!” he muttered to himself. “We haven’t run out of resources. Not yet. Not while we still have the Famous Five!”

He reached for the telephone.

“Woof!” said Timmy the dog.

Notes: Clubland Heroes: A Nostalgic Study of the Recurrent Characters in the Romantic Fiction of Dornford Yates, John Buchan and “Sapper” is the title of a book by Richard Usborne. Vintage Stuff is the title of a novel by Tom Sharpe.

The author is a lapsed academic who sometimes writes under the name of  S. Subramanian.

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