One thing is certain: William Stevenson has led an uncommon life. Wartime aviator, journalist, intelligence operative, filmmaker, friend to presidents and kings, confidant to socialist agents, amateur marine biologist – he has donned countless lifetimes’ worth of mantles. His is a story that demands to be told and, given that Stevenson wrote the best-selling A Man Called Intrepid and a number of other well-received books, he seems like the right man for the job. It turns out he is not.
Past to Present reads like a cobbled together set of journal entries that, although arranged vaguely chronologically, lacks structure and narrative flow. While in his life Stevenson was whisked along by opportunity, luck, and daring, the reader is dragged unwillingly through a morass of decontextualized facts, names, memories, and opinions. On one page, it’s the Israeli Air Force rescuing hostages from a hijacked plane; on the next, with no segue, it’s the egg-laying practices of the Sarawak turtle.
Simultaneously, in reading too much into childhood dreams foreshadowing his future and overplaying his role in significant geopolitical events, Stevenson suggests a serendipity in his life that seems, simply, all too serendipitous. Making matters worse is a lack of reflection or historical understanding of events with which he is supposedly so intimately familiar. It is almost absurd for an experienced journalist with top-level political access to write off political strife in 1960s Punjab as the work of “Moslem fanatics,” with no further reflection on the dynamics of decolonization or regional ethnic politics.
There are redeeming moments here, including Stevenson’s memories of the London Blitz, his frank look at the politics of journalism in Canada and elsewhere, and his hair-raising descriptions of piloting planes during wartime and sneaking across borders, but these are too brief and scattershot.
When the book ends, the reader is left with little but a blur. Having learned so much about what Stevenson has done, we do not actually know him any better, nor do we feel richer for having shared his experiences. Perhaps, as Intrepid’s life was left to Stevenson to immortalize, so should Stevenson’s life have been left to someone else.