One reads the final pages in a state of horrified disbelief — at the lax security arrangements (Neave’s London address was listed in Who’s Who) and the man’s own cavalier nonchalance. I clapped the book shut with a renewed sense of loss, and respect. His insistence on walking the streets a free man was surely a reverberation from his time in captivity. And he was right about his killers.
Much of this biography reads like a Boys’ Own version of a John le Carré novel, and works on that level as a pacy, absorbing read. But in his desire to establish a central narrative thread, Patrick Bishop overlooks a number of Neave’s contradictions... That said, Airey Neave emerges from these pages as a fascinatingly complex man, a sepia-toned throwback to a not-too-distant era in British politics when Conservatives could still be described as compassionate, public servants put their lives on the line for the greater good, and patriotism wasn’t necessarily the last refuge of a scoundrel.
His private diaries — to which author Patrick Bishop has had access — reveal him as a troubled soul whose successes never compensated for what he saw as his failures.
This sense of inadequacy began at school (Eton), where he was perceived as conscientious rather than inspired or inspiring, and continued at Oxford, where he only managed a Third, a so-called ‘gentleman’s degree’.
After a couple of years as a trainee lawyer, he went to war in 1940 and was quickly captured when the Germans overran Calais.
Masterly on military matters, sympathetic, psychologically acute and alert to irony, Bishop takes a conventionally linear approach. Neave followed his father and grandfather to Eton, where the food “was a preparation for the prison-camp privations that would follow”. Two books he borrowed from the school library are noteworthy: Twenty-Five Years in the Secret Service by Henri Le Caron, and Within Four Walls by Colonel Antrobus Cartwright, who had been captured by the Germans in the First World War and escaped at his fifth attempt.
Bishop, who writes with admirable brevity and insight, thinks Neave was deeply traumatised by his experiences in prison and on the run during the war, when he sometimes came close to being dragged in front of a firing squad. Bishop also thinks Neave was “imprisoned by his wartime history”, being forever typecast as the first Briton to escape from Colditz...Rumour has it that, in masterminding Thatcher’s leadership campaign, he used all his old intelligence techniques to devastating effect. But Bishop’s narrative suggests this has been much exaggerated...As it was, writes Bishop, he “died a soldier’s death”, which ensured him a high place in Thatcher’s personal pantheon. He was, she said afterwards, “one of freedom’s warriors. No one knew what a great man he was...except those nearest to him.”
Bishop presents a rounded and well-researched picture of his subject. Brave and heroic though Neave unquestionably was, he was also prone to bouts of depression, suffered from a lack of self-confidence and was thin-skinned. When the BBC broadcast its Colditz drama series in 1972–4, Neave was angry that his own exploits – which he had recalled in several books – were not recognised and that his fellow prisoner Pat Reid, who never got beyond Switzerland and so did not make a ‘home run’, got all the glory. It proves that the gods will give us faults to make us men.