‘Recounts a life of spying and the trauma of war, but also lost love, yearning, and hope for the future’
– Portrait of The Spy as a Young Man
It is a great pleasure to bring you all an extract from Portrait of The Spy as a Young Man by Edward Wilson. Just published on October 15th (hardcover format) with Arcadia Books, it is the seventh book in the Catesby series. Described by Edward Wilson as a ‘coming-of-age prequel’ it is the perfect introduction to Catesby for anyone new to the series.
[ About the Book ]
1941: a teenage William Catesby leaves Cambridge to join the army and support the war effort. Parachuted into Occupied France as an SOE officer, he witnesses tragedies and remarkable feats of bravery during the French Resistance.
2014: now in his nineties, Catesby recounts his life to his mixed-race granddaughter for the first time. Their conversations weave together the historical, the personal and the emotional, skipping across different decades and continents to reveal a complex and conflicted man.
Catesby’s incredible story recounts a life of spying and the trauma of war and hope for the future.
“I see ‘Portrait of The Spy as a Young Man’ as a coming-of-age prequel. Although born into poverty in docklands Lowestoft, Catesby learns French and Flemish from his widowed Belgian mother. His gift for languages impresses his teachers and earns him a place at Cambridge. Not wanting to bask in the shelter of university while others are fighting and dying, Catesby leaves Cambridge after only two terms to join the army. His linguistic skills are quickly spotted by SOE recruiters – and MI6 too – and it isn’t long before Catesby finds himself parachuted into Occupied France. As an elderly Catesby relates his life story to his mixed-race granddaughter, we realize that the book’s narrative embraces Britain’s future as well as its past.“
– Edward Wilson
[ Extract ]
Cambridge: Michaelmas Term, 1941
It didn’t feel right being a student at Cambridge University with a war going on and other young men dying. When Catesby told his mother that he was going to turn down the offer of a place and volunteer for military service, she flew into a rage. Which made him even more determined to volunteer. But somehow Mr Bennett, who had been his form tutor at Denes Grammar, got wind of the rumour that Catesby was considering turning down his Cambridge place. The teacher turned up, unannounced, at the family home on a warm summer’s afternoon.
Catesby was surprised and embarrassed to see Mr Bennett standing in the doorway. It was unusual to see him not wearing his academic gown – which hid the fact that one of his arms was missing. Bennett had lost his arm at the end of the Great War – the same day, in fact, that Wilfrid Owen was killed. Bennett joked that it was a lucky escape. The lost limb not only saved his life, but spared the world his own posthumous poetry. ‘As it’s so warm,’ said Mr Bennett, ‘I’m in shirtsleeve.’ Catesby gave a half-smile to Bennett’s joke. Not all the students appreciated the teacher’s sense of humour, but Catesby found it made his lessons memorable – or at least bearable.
‘I was just passing this way for a walk. We still can’t walk along the beach itself – even though the invasion danger’s long gone – but we can now walk along the clifftops. I was hoping you would join me.’ Catesby’s mother was busy in the kitchen. He called out, ‘Ik ga wandelen met meneer Bennett. Ik ben zo terug.’ ‘As I heard my name mentioned, could you grace me with a translation?’ ‘Nothing disrespectful, sir. I simply said, I’m going for a walk with Mr Bennett and I won’t be long.’ ‘I thought you normally spoke French at home.’ ‘Not when Mother’s cooking Waterzooi.’
The first part of the walk passed in silence. When they got to the Corton Cliffs, Mr Bennett turned to his former student. ‘You are, William Catesby, one of the most remarkable students I have ever taught.’ ‘Thank you, Mr Bennett.’ ‘The most remarkable thing about you is that your absolutely incredible gift for languages – and not just the ones you speak at home – hides the fact that you are a complete idiot.’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, you think that.’ ‘Fortunately, the learned dons who interviewed you at Cambridge failed to recognise that lamentable facet of your character.’ Catesby smiled. ‘I was, Mr Bennett, also a very good drama student.’ ‘No backchat, Catesby. To which particular example of idiocy do you think I am referring?’ ‘I don’t think the RAF will have me, my eyes aren’t quite good enough, so I’m going in the army.’ ‘Over what would be left of my dead body. No, Catesby. You are going to King’s College Cambridge to read Modern Languages.
‘I’m not going to bask in pampered privilege, Mr Bennett, while others are dying.’ Mr Bennett laughed. ‘You were not, Catesby, a good drama student – and you have just proved it. Would you like to try that line again, with, perhaps, less emphasis on the too obvious pampered privileged alliteration? Ah, and now you are laughing.’ ‘Thank you, Mr Bennett, for making me laugh – and for, once again, making me see what a fool I am.’ ‘Idealism and self-sacrifice are not foolish. Forgive me, Catesby, for having been too hard on you.’ ‘There is, Mr Bennett, as we all know, method in your apologies.’ ‘Not everyone knows that, Catesby, only the brighter ones.’ ‘But I’m still determined to sign up.’
‘Why so soon? The war isn’t going to go away – and, as far as we’re concerned, the next year or two may be pretty dull. All the action is going to be between Germany and Russia. If you want to see battle and die a valiant death, you ought to join the Soviet Army. They could use your help at Leningrad.’ Catesby looked out to sea. Two Royal Navy Patrol Service boats, converted trawlers manned largely by former trawler men, were heading out to sea. The losses among Lowestoft’s fishermen since being absorbed into the Patrol Service were already horrendous. Catesby swallowed hard and felt a pang of guilt. They were his people and came from the same cramped terraces near the docks.
‘I am not going to say, William, that I know how you feel.’ Catesby smiled. The sudden shift to first-name basis was another Bennett trick. ‘Your mind belongs to you alone – and I would never trespass there. But may I suggest a compromise?’ ‘As you like, sir.’ ‘I contacted Cambridge University – not just about your case, but the wartime situation in general. They told me that’s it’s perfectly acceptable for a student to begin a course and then return to finish it after military service. You must do at least two terms, Michaelmas and Lent – and preferably Easter too. You could be in uniform no later than next June.’ Catesby remained silent. ‘And if, Catesby, you want to be even more useful to your country, an extra year studying German would be very helpful.’ ‘Your logic, Mr Bennett, is faultless.’ ‘So you will accept your place at Cambridge?’ ‘I will, sir, think about it.’ ‘Good. And there is another reason, William, why this is so important.’ ‘Why, sir?’ ‘No one from your background, certainly not in Lowestoft and probably all of Suffolk, has ever got into Oxbridge before. You are breaking ground, solid class-privileged hard clay, that very badly needs breaking.’ Catesby looked at Mr Bennett with astonishment.
Purchase Link ~ AmazonUK
[ Bio ]
Edward Wilson spent his early days in the US before moving to the UK. A few weeks after graduating from university, Wilson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry. He did the basic infantry officer course followed by parachute training. On completing the Special Forces officers’ course he was then sent to Vietnam where he was assigned to A-105 at Nong Son, a ‘border screening camp’ in Northern Vietnam. It was during that time that he received the Army Commendation Medal for Heroism for his part in rescuing wounded Vietnamese soldiers from a minefield. He also began writing his debut novel, A River in May.
After leaving the army, Wilson travelled widely in Canada and Europe, working in Bremen, Germany as a labourer in the AG Weser shipyard and later as a nursing assistant in the St. Jürgenstrasse Hospital. It was during this time that Wilson absorbed the knowledge of German language, life and politics all of which are an important part of his espionage novels.
Wilson has lived in Suffolk since 1976 which features in all his fiction. He has taught English and modern languages in Suffolk for the past 22 years and also turned to writing in 1997.
Edward Wilson is the author of eight novels: A River in May, The Envoy, The Darkling Spy, The Midnight Swimmer, A Very British Ending, The Whitehall Mandarin, South Atlantic Requiem and Portrait of the Spy as Young Man, all published by Arcadia Books. He has also written articles, reviews and for The Guardian, The Independent, Open Democracy, The Big Issue, Tribune Magazine, Crime Time and Norfolk Suffolk Life.
Twitter ~ @EfwilsonEdward