A life of constant motion Master storyteller casts his spell in magnificent biography
Past to Present
A Reporter's Story of War, Spies, People, and Politics
By William Stevenson
Published by Lyons Press
'A Man Called Intrepid', about the man dubbed the 'real' James Bond, is author and journalist William Stevenson's most famous of 16 literary works, but that choice of title could have been on the cover of his own biography.
It, however, is called 'Past to Present A Reporter's Story of War, Spies, People, and Politics', and has just been published by Lyons Press.
And what a book it is. Exquisitely crafted, this writer's style and faultless choice of words and quotes make the eye-popping stories he tells spring right off the page and come immediately to bright, Technicolour life. He writes in the present tense which makes it an immediate and vivid telling, but his genius is a grasp of language which allows him to paint that bright picture, rapidly filling it with ever more captivating detail and then place himself, along with his impressions and ever-ready wit, right in the middle of it.
The opening paragraphs of a chapter describing his reporting on the Suez crisis show how effectively he is able to do this: “I am in Cairo to report British, French and Israeli preparations in 1956 to prevent Gamal Abdel Nasser from seizing the Suez Canal. A senior Egyptian official, frank about his Muslim Brotherhood links, warns that if I continue to write critically of Nasser's policies, 'You will find yourself rolled up in a rug and dumped on your embassy's steps'. Borden Spears cables me: 'Mike says get out now.'
“'It's all Greek to me!' I jokingly tell Herb. 'Spears is a Greek scholar who could never afford to continue his studies after wartime service in the air force.'”
The author and journalist has strong Bermuda connections he has family members living here and lived here himself while he was researching 'Intrepid', about the Second World War work of Sir William Stephenson, the Canadian who headed the top secret activities at Bletchley Park, key in obtaining the eventual Allied victory. He retired in Bermuda, where the author came to work on his story. He chronicles that time in this autobiography: “During sojourns in Bermuda, I assemble 'Intrepid's' publishable prose. For us both Bermuda's attraction is its closeness to nature. I can slip underwater to revive my curiosity about sea life. He can handle Whitehall's disapproval by taking comfort from wildlife. 'At least creatures of the wild,' he says, 'fight clean'.”
Mr Stevenson grew up in London he was born within the sound of the Bow Bells, making him a true Cockney. The family moved to Bletchley Park during the war years, from where his dour but clearly brilliant Scottish father was doing highly secret and extremely important war work. As a 16-year-old, he joined the Royal Navy as a flyer, and there grew up quickly as he went into a service that had lost large numbers of men, and continued to do so, among them, friends and fellow fliers. It was the death of one friend in particular during training in Canada that inspired his life of constant motion, instilling the need to “make the world a better place to justify your sacrifice”, he writes, moving himself and his family from one continent to the next, chasing the next important story and then telling it to the world through his newspaper articles that certainly number in their thousands.
Unlike so many people who live this sort of life, Mr Stevenson is a family man. At one point he writes: “Am I reckless as a father? I ask myself as I turn up the collar of my pajamas. Our family would never have had such experiences if I were a banker, I try to convince myself. Take Kashmir, for instance. I fly my two sons there from Delhi for adventures I could only dream about as a child in the London slums.”
And he has had extraordinary adventures and met extraordinary people, from a very early friendship with war-time singer Vera Lynn, crossing paths with Ian Fleming, the James Bond author and newspaper editor for whom he briefly worked, to the wife of the last Governor of India Countess Mountbatten of Burma, the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Dalai Lama and numerous others, people whose names figure large in the history of their time.
'Past to Present' is a book to savour larger-than-life adventures, remarkable people and extraordinary times seen through the eyes of this journalist whose unruffled interest, powers of observation and quality of prose carries his readers into his astonishing world and keeps them there.
Mr Stevenson will be signing copies of his book at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess - appropriately from where the war time censors operated from tomorrow between 7.30pm and 8.30pm and again at The Bookmart on Saturday from 2pm to 3pm.
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