old identity: a person long resident or
well known in a place. N.Z. and Austral. [OED]
The Old Identities
by Michael Miller
(© 2006 all rights reserved)
Lord Handley, remembered today mostly for a radio magazine in which he chatted randomly about current affairs, history, and the arts, aroused sharp controversy at the height of his career as a diplomat and politician with his initiatives against nuclear proliferation and the death penalty. Voted out of his seat in the Canadian Parliament for one of these gestures, he went into an exile of sorts, teaching at his old university, Oxford, where he dabbled in art, ancient history, and literature. His broad interests captivated one student, Ian MacInnes, a lonely young colonial who was thrilled to find himself adopted as a friend by his tutor and his wife, Margaret. He idealized the couple and kept the friendship alive over the years.
When Handley dies, Ian is distressed by the obscurity into which his friend had fallen. Even Margaret seems in a hurry to forget him, hastily auctioning off his possessions, including his papers, which end up in remote American libraries. She buys a house in Umbria with the proceeds and puts her married life of over sixty years behind her. For his part, Ian embarks on David's biography, only to discover that he kept secret a period in his youth when bitter, dangerous experiences formed his mature, public personality and buried his youthful passions. David always masked this behind his first wartime assignment, a desk job as a liaison officer in Washington, in which he was exposed to nothing more perilous than loneliness and boredom. Deeply wounded by David's secretiveness, Ian becomes obsessed with his research.
Ian presents his discoveries as he finds them, moving backwards in his journey, like an archaeologist. He begins his research travels in the National Archive in Ottawa. A forgotten complete transcription of Handley's famous parliamentary speech against the death penalty first alerts him to the secret: in an emotional outburst Handley referred to an execution he was forced to perform in an English military prison. Ian then examines Handley's military record and finds that he saw action in Italy, successfully leading a group of disgraced British soldiers against a munitions depot. As a result, Handley only narrowly escaped disciplinary action, in spite of his success. He was saved by General Alexander himself, who gave him a position on his staff at allied headquarters in the Bourbon palace at Caserta.
Burning with a desire to uncover the truth, MacInnes spends months in the UK tracking down the surviving members of Handley's unit. Only one of them provided a coherent narrative of the mission. He seizes on it it gratefully, quoting it in full: misinformed by inaccurate orders, Handley and his men were facing almost certain destruction. They survived only because of his alert observation of the situation and rapid change in their plan of attack, not to mention the ready surrender of the cynical German officer in charge of their objective. He found a deep rapport with the German, a dislocated literary man like himself. Ian in fact had met him on several occasions. Handley always called him Freddie.
This in turn inspires Ian to reconsider a sheaf of papers he already has in his possession but has failed to understand. Deciphered in a new context, they emerge as drafts for long letters in which David unfolded his meditations on his recent ordeals. Agonized by separation from the addressee, evidently not Margaret, and the uncertainty of his situation, he experienced an intense, even surreal moment of self-realization on a nocturnal ramble through the gardens at Caserta, followed by a return to his familiar liaison work at Allied headquarters.
Refusing to admit that Margaret and David were not happy in their marriage, Ian concludes that these belonged to a novel that David was writing to pass the time, as well as fragments of a journal he discovers in a Texas university archive established to provide historical and theoretical support for the death penalty.
Stationed in Washington early in the Second World War, David found himself bored and aimless, frustrated from pursuing his somewhat old-fashioned literary ambitions, as well as his vague desire to make a more manly contribution to the war effort. There he met Kate McNeil, the brilliant and energetic publisher/editor of a little magazine she had founded in support of an obscure social movement. The couple managed to see each other monthly for almost two years in discreet hideaways around Washington, New York, and Montreal and made plans to divorce their spouses and marry. Together and individually, they encountered disturbing experiences in the United States, unsettled as it prepared to enter the war-a time when loyalties were still dispersed and suspicions were rife. Even Kate's idealistic movement, localized in a remote fishing community in Nova Scotia, was suspected of Fascist leanings. She was harrassed by the FBI and deported. Later, on his way to one of their trysts in Montreal, David was handed a document which described a secret weapon under development in America. Kate insisted on reading it. Horrified, she urged him to try to thwart the project by exposing it to the public. The novel culminates in their disastrous final days together, when David was compelled to face an impossible decision, as well as his own limitations, before he was almost instantly dispatched across the Atlantic.
While he transcribes this story, lonely and depressed in the dismal Texas college town, Ian allows the founder of the archive to befriend him and accepts an invitation to witness an execution. As a result he suffers a mental breakdown.
After several weeks in institutions, Ian is released and returns home to put his affairs in order before leaving for an extended vacation. There he meets a student of his, Ellen, who has been managing his affairs for him during his absence. Unexpectedly, their friendship develops into intimacy. Still, he leaves the next day as planned for a remote part of Nova Scotia-the town where Kate had grown up, about which he had read in David's manuscript. There, he lapses into a relaxed, dreamlike state, in which he encounters the dearest figures from David's early life. Together, they ponder their own ways to say farewell to their damaged, repressed, unknowable friend, and Ian finds a way to come to terms with his obsessions and to take hold of his own life.