Passe Partout: Hidden Meanings

Mar 29, 2008

By Alex Browne

Those who have read Jules Verne's Around The World In Eighty Days may recall Passe Partout as Phineas Fogg's resourceful gentleman's gentleman.

But passe-partout is a word with interesting, and historic meaning. "It's literally 'access to everywhere'," said South Surrey writer Sam Wharton.

"It means a master key, certainly, but it also refers to the passageways by which servants reached the rooms in the great country houses of England–the stairways from 'Downstairs' to 'Upstairs' but also–just as surely–the stairs from 'Upstairs' to 'Downstairs'."

It's a particularly apt title for the British-born, retired engineer's first novel–an absorbing tale of intrigue set in the England of 1954, in which Jonathan Hare, an apparently innocent but resourceful young man of 17, finds himself in the middle of a hidden war.

Fantastic as it may seem to newer generations, a very real battle was being waged in Britain, in the aftermath of World War Two, between right wing forces representing the traditional privileged ruling classes and the left wing forces of socialist reorganization.

As Wharton points out, the tenor of the times was established early. The first post-war national election resulted not in the return of the Tory government of heroic wartime leader Winston Churchill, but the left-wing Labour government of Clement Attlee. And as Britain entered the 1950s and 'ruling class' powers were further eroded in favour of a rise in the power of the trade unions–even with the return of Churchill as prime minister–battle lines were well and truly drawn beneath a veneer of British politeness.

"It was a class war," Wharton states emphatically, "every bit as brutal and vicious as the earlier war."

And just like any other war, intelligence, counter-intelligence and subterfuge play a major role in Passe Partout. Wharton's draws a vivid picture of a Britain in which continued wartime austerity (rationing continued until 1954) masks surreptitious movement of large sums of money.

Jonathan's very resourcefulness , and his boarding school-fostered reserve, brand Jonathan as a useful 'likely lad'–one with access to all levels of society–but one who bears watching.

"He's a bit of a cypher–he very much represents the middle of the road, and he doesn't like to give away too much about himself," Wharton said.

In this feverish atmosphere of subterfuge–which includes everyone from Royal messengers and titled aristocracy to Scotland Yard, police informers, socialist conspirators, glamourous female agents, 'spivs' (street-wise petty crooks) and even the feared East End gangsters the Kray Twins (here fictionalized as the 'Greys')–Jonathan is the embodiment of every suspicion and the confirmation of every fear.

And Jonathan's innate–and richly symbolic–knack for opening locks (even the impregnable Champion safes, all plans and records of which were lost in wartime bombing) is the key to both his rise and fall.

Wharton, who recalls fondly mysteries in the Strand Magazine and the Bulldog Drummond adventures of his youth, has written a book remarkably redolent of the style, feel and outlook of the period–reading almost like the scenario of some long-lost British black and white movie of the early '50s.

A devout Christian, Wharton has also managed to exclude the more offensive Anglo-Saxonisms which seem mandatory in contemporary novels.

"I decided if I couldn't find the kind of books I wanted to read, I'd have to write them myself," he said.

And like the Flashman books of his literary idol, the late George MacDonald Fraser, Wharton has proven adept at weaving his particular fantasies into the fabric of historical fact.

And some of his own background too–he, too, was 17 in 1954 and Jonathan and he share the same roots in agrarian Cornwall, even if their ultimate paths were different.

While promising student Jonathan is recruited from school into an exotic milieu of crime and deception, promising student Wharton was recruited into the safer highways of the military college Sandhurst, serving in the British Army before retiring, as a major, at age 37.

"It's the point in the Army where you have to get out while you're still employable elsewhere," he said.

"I said 'thanks very much, Your Majesty, I'm off."

An exchange appointment with the U.S. military had opened his eyes to the potential of life in North America; after several years in research and development with a high-tech Canadian company he was accepted into the Federal Public Service and became Canadian project manager for a project in Hong Kong.

In 1991 he was appointed to the Treasury Board Secretariat and opted to take early retirement in 1997.

But it's clear he won't be retiring from his Passe Partout characters any time soon–he's already at work on a sequel and planning a third installment of the adventures of Jonathan Hare.

"It's like an octopus," he said, adding that writing the first book revealed many tangents and ideas that could not be fully explored in one volume.

"What I find in writing is–having spent time reading about other writers–is that you start with a shadowy idea of these characters and they start to take on their own lives. They dictate to you what's happening.

"I'm an engineer, and this is very freaky. But if you write three or four pages and they don't like it, they'll tell you. Then I either reject it or, do what any good Brit would do. I don't destroy anything–I keep it for future reference."

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