Recent Reading 17

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.

  • Andrew Lownie (2021): Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Blink Publishing. Fascinating account of the activities of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor following his abdication as King-Emperor Edward VIII. Before reading this book, I thought Edward was naive and a dupe of the Nazis, and his wife a social butterfly. After reading this book, it is clear that they were both pro-Nazis and anti-semites, and active colluders in Nazi plans for a post-invasion Britain. He was the only member of the Royal Family to have an MI5 file. He was certainly engaged in treasonous activities during WWII, and he possibly also helped to launder ill-gotten Nazi wealth into investments in Mexico and South America while he was Governor of the Bahamas (perhaps for personal gain). I am reminded of the visits Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) made to the bombed-out East End of London during the Blitz, something I doubt the self-centred Mrs Simpson would have done. On a personal level, the couple were renowned spongers on the hospitality and generosity of others, and always treated their staff abominably. Not nice people at all.
  • RW Johnson (2019): Fighting for the Dream. Jonathan Ball. The first part of this book is, from what I can tell, a very accurate and insightful analysis of the political and economic situation that South Africa finds itself in, with a state apparently dedicated to the further personal enrichment of its own apparat. The second part of the book is a series of suggested policies to overcome this situation. These policies reveal Johnson’s weakness as someone who has spent his whole life – as academic, as historian, as journalist, and as pollster – as a member of the chaterati: The suggestions are completely infeasible as practical politics. Having described in the first part the reality from where any change must start, he then ignores his own analysis of current reality and offers suggestions that start from some mythical place where the apparat and their allies have little power to resist or undermine or delay the policies proposed. In other words, the proposals are completely impractical. // Moreover, I find it decidedly ironic and worse that Johnson suggests a policy of forced removals in order to deck the entire eastern coast of South Africa, from Mozambique to Buffalo City (East London), with high-rise hotels and apartments. How can it be that a liberal South African, with all its sad history and against his own record of brave opposition to apartheid, is recommending forced removals of people in order to benefit property developers? Something is seriously amiss here.
  • Rebecca Donner (2021): All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler. Canongate Books. A moving account of a brave American woman, Mildred Harnack, in Berlin in the 1930s and 1940s, active in creating and sustaining circles of anti-Nazi resistance. Her German husband, Arvid Harnack, was a cousin to several of the families prominent in the underground resistance – the Bonhoeffer, von Dohnanyi and Delbruck families. He was a senior official in the Nazi Reich Ministry of Economics, and was able to leak strategic economic information to the Americans (via his wife) and to the Russians (via his own connections). // The group was undone after Pavel Fitkin, head of NKVD Foreign Intelligence in Moscow had stupidly, and against good tradecraft, sent an encrypted message to a Soviet GRU agent in Belgium, Anatoly Gurevich (Code name Agent Kent) which contained their real names and their Berlin home addresses. The message was broken by mathematician Wilhelm Vauck and his team in the Funkabwehr, the signals intelligence service, after a Gestapo raid in Brussels and the torture of the housekeeper of the office raided, who revealed the name of the book used for encipherment: Guy de Teramond’s Le Miracle du Professor Wolmar (Paris, 1910). A German trip to a used-book store in Paris resulted in Dr Vauck having a copy the next day in Berlin. // The account is written as a series of short episodes, with multiple threads which may only intersect, if they do at all, late in the account. The author is the great-great-niece of Mildred Harnack, and the account draws on family memories and papers, as well as the memories of Don Heath Jr, who, as an 11-year-old boy, bravely and wittingly couriered secret messages across Berlin between Mildred and his father at the US Embassy. Presumably, these messages contained information obtained by Arvid.
  • RW Johnson (2020): Foreign Native: An African Journey. Jonathan Ball. This is a fascinating account of Johnson’s youth and recent years in South Africa. It led me to re-read his earlier memoir of his time at Oxford, which takes on a richer and much more interesting hue after learning of his dissident political activities in Natal and the Eastern Cape before leaving for Oxford. In particular, his near arrest (and certain torture) by agents of apartheid South African State Security, which he only learnt shortly after his arrival at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, may have led to the caution which saw him spend the next quarter century of his life at the same Oxford College where he did his PhD. The teenager was father to the man, perhaps.
  • RW Johnson (2015): Look Back in Laughter: Oxford’s Postwar Golden Age. Threshold Press. This is a fascinating account of Johnson’s near three decades as post-graduate student, Fellow and CFO of Magdalen College, Oxford. Many of his Oxford students went on to fame and fortune as journalists, bankers, politicians, and hommes d’affaires, and his justifiable pride at having taught and influenced them is countered by an evident regret that he chose a different path. He too could have become Editor of The Economist, his book seems to say implicitly, had he chosen differently after his PhD. // One mystery throughout is what is his first name, and why does he go to such efforts (elsewhere as well as in this book) to conceal it. He lets slip a couple of times that people call him “Bill”, so perhaps the “W” in “RW” stands for William.
  • Henry Shukman (2021): One Blade of Grass: A Zen Memoir. Yellow Kite. This is a finely-written and gripping memoir of a spiritual journey. I found the author’s descriptions of his family and of his diverse interactions with them more interesting than his account of his spiritual life. This is perhaps because his spiritual experiences have been mainly ineffable. Shukman is a very elegant stylist, so it is a pity for people who read that he seems to have decided to write no longer.
  • Robin Renwick (2014): Helen Suzman: Bright Star in a Dark Chamber: The Biography. Biteback Publishing. Renwick was a UK High Commissioner to South Africa and has written this biography of his friend Helen Suzman. Suzman’s life was heroic and principled, but this is not a definitive biography. The book is short, uncritical, and not the work of an experienced biographer. Where, for example, is the detailed analysis of her questions in Parliament, and of her activities as an MP? Where are the interviews with her opponents and colleagues, and those she helped? Where are the detailed descriptions of her election campaigns and the analysis to explain why her wealthy constituency continued to return the sole opposition MP?
  • Lucy Kellaway (2021): Re-educated: How I Changed my Job, my Home, my Husband and my Hair. Formerly a writer with the London Financial Times, Lucy Kellaway retired after 30-odd years as a journalist and retrained as a high-school teacher. This is her account of the experience, and it is well-written. However, the author’s experiences are not widely transferable. It is fine for her, with her family grown, her mortgage paid, and her pension sorted, to decide to embark on a late second career as a teacher, but most people do not have her privileges. Certainly, if she’d decided to become a teacher first, then she’d likely not have the upper-middle class lifestyle that would allow a late change to another career.
  • Robert Tredgold CJ (1968): The Rhodesia That Was My Life. George Allen and Unwin. A memoir by a former Attorney-General and Minister for Defence of Southern Rhodesia, and later Chief Justice of both Southern Rhodesia and of the Central African Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. By the standards of white Southern Africa, Tredgold was quite liberal, and indeed resigned after the Federal Government introduced new legislation limiting freedoms of speech and assembly. The memoir avoids much personal information, but is moving about his upbringing and career.
  • Rod Barton (2021): The Life of a Spy: An Education in Truth, Lies and Power. Black Inc. A fascinating account of the career of an Australian espionage operator. Not only well-written, but truthful, as far as one can tell.
  • Susan Woodhouse (2018): Garfield Todd: The End of the Liberal Dream in Rhodesia: The Authorised Biography. Weaver Press. A fascinating and detailed account of the life of New Zealand missionary turned liberal Southern Rhodesian politician, Garfield Todd. This biography was written by Susan Woodhouse, who had been one of Todd’s staffers when he was Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia (1953-1958), and so the book was 60 years in the making. (Woodhouse later married Archdeacon John Paul, leader between 1957 and 1970 of the Anglican community in colonial Mozambique.) When Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia, Todd attended the Independence ceremony of Ghana in 1957, invited personally by Kwame Nkrumah. // Until reading this biography, I was not aware of the fundamental role played by Todd’s wife, Grace Todd, in the design of the primary school curriculum and the development of teaching materials for black Zimbabweans between the 1930s and the 1970s, at a time when the SR Government paid little attention to black education. After Independence, the Zimbabwe Government honoured her for her educational work.

Recent Reading 16

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.

  • Leo McKinstry [2019]:  Attlee and Churchill: Allies in War, Adversaries in Peace.
  • Isidor F Stone [1947, this edition 2015]:  Underground to Palestine: And Other Writing on Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East (Editor: Mark Crispin Miller).  A superb first-hand account of the Bricha (or Bericha) Movement, the Jewish underground railroad in Europe immediately following WW II, spiriting Jews from the USSR and Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, to the Middle East.  For most people this was illegal, and was completed against a British blockade of Palestine.  In Stone’s account, Czechoslovakia was the most friendly of the EE governments towards Jewish citizens and displaced persons in transit. (HT: JG)
  • Lawrence Weschler [2019]:  And How are You, Dr Sacks? A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks.   A fascinating account from a long-term personal friend of this complex, multi-faceted man. I once wrote to Sacks about what I considered to be a mistake in one of his books (describing how he thought people recognized faces), and he replied thoughtfully.  This was long before I knew of his prosopagnosia, and I now realize that his mistaken description may have arisen from his own inability in facial recognition.
  • Thomas J Chermack [2017]:  Foundations of Scenario Planning: The Story of Pierre Wack.   The very interesting biography of spiritual seeker Pierre Wack and the the history of his role in the development of scenario planning at Shell from the late 1960s.
  • Stephen Hough [2019]: Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More.
  • Richard Bassett [2012]:  Hitler’s Spy Chief:  The Story of Wilhelm Canaris.  I had not realized that the Abwehr under Canaris helped British special forces reach Finland in late 1939/early 1940 to aid the Finns in their defence against the USSR (in the Winter War).  Nazi Germany was allied with the USSR and fighting the UK at the time.
  • Michael Mueller [2007]:  Canaris:  The Life and Death of Hitler’s Spymaster.
  • Richard M Nixon [1962]: Six Crises.
  • William Cook (Editor) [2010]: Kiss Me, Chudleigh: The World According to Auberon Waugh.
  • Anthony Seldon [2019]: May at 10.  After reading this account, I was somewhat more sympathetic towards Mrs May, knowing more about her predicament and her constraints as PM.  On the other hand, she does seem an insufferably awful person, completely unable to empathize with people who are not daughters of Bishops from the Home Counties. For instance, I did not know before of the various exigencies of her Brexit travel and meetings around the night of the Grenfell Tower fire.  Still, these constraints do not excuse her failure to visit the site without delay.  Even having just gone to bed after a quick trip to Brussels (as she had) a few hours before the fire, Tony Blair or David Cameron or even Margaret Thatcher would have got up again in the early hours and gone to the site as soon they were awoken with the news.  Even Gordon Brown or John Major, if they’d not been woken at 3am, would have gone there the very first thing the next morning. Only someone severely lacking in human understanding and having no political nous would have delayed visiting for several days, as she did.  It ill behooves her and always will. 
    May is also revealed as inept in her negotiations with the EU over Brexit, encumbered as she was by the character defects she had exhibited as Home Secretary: wilful stubbornness (as in her irrational refusal to remove University students from the Immigration statistics); extreme secrecy; and a recalcitrant refusal to learn. Added to these defects was an ignorance and lack of interest in Europe and its institutions, and an ignorance and lack of interest in business and finance.  She reminds me immensely of one of those puritannical spinsters who administered the backwaters of nineteenth century British life, women such as Anne Moberly, first Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford (and daughter of a Bishop). May’s most enduring legacy will be the Windrush Scandal, where the hostile environment policy she created and implemented at the Home Office destroyed the lives of hundreds of law-abiding British citizens.  For that vile policy she has generously managed to ensure others have received most of the the blame. 
  • Henry Hemming [2019]: Our Man in New York:  The British Plot to bring America into the Second World War.  A fascinating account of fake news and deception campaign run by a government aiming to influence political events in a foreign country.
  • Brian Abrams [2018]: Obama: An Oral History.
  • Patrick Cunnane [2018]: West Winging It: My Unforgettable Time in the White House.  Chatty and unpleasant. 
  • Steve Vogel [2019]: Betrayal in Berlin: The True Story of the Cold War’s Most Audacious Espionage Operation.  Riveting account of the Berlin tunnel operation.
  • Graeme Skinner [2007]:  Peter Sculthorpe: The Making of an Australian Composer.  Led to this by the biography of Peggy Glanville-Hicks (below).  Only covers the first part of  his adult life.
  • Suzanne Robinson [2019]:  Peggy Glanville-Hicks: Composer and Critic.  What a fascinating life she had, and seemed to know everyone. Reading about and listening to her music, I realize her main structural technique was ethnomusical collage.  Interesting, and often very pretty, but, like theme-and-variations form, ultimately shallow. 
  • David Cameron [2019]:  For the Record.
  • George Ferguson Bowen [1850/]: Ithaca in 1850.  Second Edition. Bowen [1821-1899], twice President of the Oxford Union, was President of the Ionian University in Corfu from 1847-1851, and then was Chief Secretary to the Government of the United States of the Ionian Islands from 1854-1859.  While serving in that latter post, he married Contessa Diamantina di Roma, daughter of the President of the Ioanian Senate.   Bowen was then appointed founding Governor of Queensland from 1859 to 1868.
  • Nick Thorpe [2015]: ’89: The Unfinished Revolution.
  • Michael Meyer [2010]: The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • Peter Millar [2016]:  1989: The Berlin Wall: My Part in its Downfall.  Books to read on the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall.  I recall the excitement of those end-of-days vividly.
  • Sandra V. Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille [2012]: Circle of Treason: CIA Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed.  A very good account from two of the team who identified and caught Ames.
  • Duncan White [2019]:  Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War.  Fascinating and gossipy, although I had picked up much of it before.
  • Robyn Arianrhod [2019]: Thomas Harriot: A Life in Science.  Harriot was a remarkable person and deserves a respectful and learned biography.  This book is not it, because the author does not understand the extent to which a modern, secular, anti-religious scientific worldview was alien to Harriot’s time (and even to Newton’s time, a century later).  Harriot may or may not have been an atheist, but he certainly wasn’t a modern, secular scientist.  In her attempt to assert that he was, the book comes across as very anachronistic, and she fails to enter into or evoke his time and worldview. The book is much more a product of her time than of Harriot’s.  
  • Miranda Carter [2001]: Anthony Blunt: His Lives.
  • Edward Snowden [2019]: Permanent Record.  Superb. My respect for this very courageous and intelligent man continues to grow apace.
  • Karen Olsson [2019]: The Weil Conjectures: On Maths and the Pursuit of the Unknown.  A book about pure mathematics by a non-mathematician.  Not as good as she thinks it is.
  • Blaine Harden [2018]: King of Spies: The Dark Reign of America’s Spymaster in Korea.  A biography of Donald Nichols, one of the stranger people, of the many very strange people, to end up as an intelligence office.
  • Gordon Thomas [2003]:  Assassination Robert Maxwell:  Israel’s Superspy.   A compelling case for Cap’n Bob being a long-term informant for Israeli intelligence and for his corrupt involvement with money-laundering schemes of communist Eastern European leaders (particularly the regime of Todor Zhikov in Bulgaria).   A less compelling case is presented that Maxwell was assassinated by Israeli agents.  But who of us knows?
  • Tom Bower [2019]:  Dangerous Hero: Corbyn‘s Ruthless Plot for Power.  The Dear Leader comes off very badly in this account.  First, his one experience of actual executive power (in local government) showed him to be inept, ideological and recalcitrant.  As most others with close experience of him recount, he is not very bright, learns nothing, and almost never changes his mind.  Second, what precisely DID he do in those missing months after the early finish of his VSO service in Jamaica before his return to the UK?  Was he being trained at a revolutionary camp in Cuba?  Bumming across the USA?  Working on Wall Street?   Third, is Dianne Abbot still sitting in his office chair when he is away from his desk?
  • Ross McMullin [2005]:  So Monstrous A Travesty: Chris Watson and the World’s First National Labor Government.  Australia’s third Prime Minister (and the only one so far who was born in Chile).
  • Tim Parks [2005]: Medici Money:  Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence.  A fascinating multi-disciplinary account of the Medici banking dynasty.
  • Mungo MacCallum [2009]:  Kevin Rudd and the Lucky Country. Quarterly Essay 36 Australian Story.
  • Mungo MacCallum [2014]:  The Whitlam Mob.
  • Norman Moss [1987]: Klaus Fuchs: The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb.
  • Steven Pfaff  [2006]: Exit-Voice Dynamics and the Collapse of East Germany: The Crisis of Leninism and the Revolution of 1989. (HT: OK)
  • George Packer [2019]:  Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.  This is a superb account, effectively combining detailed political and historical analysis with personal knowledge of Holbrooke. It is sad to see that the lessons of Vietnam were deliberately and wittingly ignored by Obama and most of his foreign policy team.  I was reminded of Susan Sontag’s statement after 9/11 that “America has lost her innocence. But don’t worry, we will get it back. We always do.”

    The only flaw of this book, a serious flaw and making for unpleasant reading, is a discussion of Holbrooke’s sex life.  Although Holbrooke himself seems to be someone I would have been unlikely to have warmed to, no true friend, as Packer claims to have been, would write or publish such a discussion.

  • Gordon Corera [2018]:  The Illegal:  The Hunt for a Russan Spy in Post-War London.  The story of Gordon Lonsdale, aka Konon Molody.
  • Morris Dickstein [2002]:  Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970.
  • Jeremy Duns [2013]:  Dead Drop: The True Story of Oleg Penkovsky and the Cold War’s Most Dangerous Operation.
  • Jeremy Duns [2019]: A Spy Is Born: Dennis Wheatley and the Secret Roots of Ian Fleming’s James Bond.
  • John Earl Haynes [1999]:  Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America.
  • Evan Ratliff [2019]: The Mastermind: The Hunt for the World’s Most Prolific Criminal.  The intriguing story of white Zimbabwean Paul Le Roux, who may also be Satoshi Nakamoto.  If only he’d been satisfied with the vast profits from online sales of legal drugs in the USA. 
  • Roy A. Medvedev [1989]:  Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism.
  • Aino Kuusinen [1974]:  Before and After Stalin: A Personal Account of Soviet Russia from the 1920s to the 1960s.  A fascinating autobiography of someone who had an interesting life near to the top  of Soviet politics, was the second wife of Otto Kuusinen and knew Victor Sorge in Japan.
  • Roy A Medvedev and Zhores A Medvedev [1976]:  Khrushchev: The Years in Power.  From this account, Krushchev was undone by his idiosyncratic and impulsive decision-making style, and his failure to ensure his continued support from the apparatchiks.
  • Zhores A Medvedev [1983]: Andropov:  An Insider’s Account of Power and Politics within the Kremlin. This biography and the one by both brothers on Krushchev are both superbly well-written (and/or translated) in a fine literary style.  A great pleasure to read, as well as interesting and very informative. 
  • Chris Smith [2019]:  The Last Cambridge Spy: John Cairncross, Bletchley Codebreaker and Soviet Double Agent.
  • Jon Davis and John Rentoul [2019]:  Heroes or Villains? The Blair Government Reconsidered.
  • Owen Matthews [2019]: An Impeccable Spy: Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent.
 
 
 
 

Clive James RIP

Clive James (1939-2019) has just died. He was a poet, novelist, writer, TV critic and TV showman famous as a wit and a humorist, although I never found him to be very funny. Strangely, not actually being funny is apparently not a barrier to acquiring a reputation as a comic writer, as the careers of Howard Jacobson and Saul Bellow demonstrate. Jacobson, an Honorary Life Member of the UK branch of the Expatriate Australian Mutual Admiration Society, praises his fellow Society member in today’s Grauniad.

Rather than being funny, I always found James’ writing and spoken words insufferably smug and condescending. His TV specials and celebrity interview shows were invariably based on ridiculing people from different cultures or with beliefs he considered inferior to his own, such as Japanese consumers or American religious believers. Even his writerly ratting on his friends included ridicule, as in his account of his friendship with Princess Diana, published after her death. I wonder if he realized that this traitorous account marked him out as someone whom it would be unwise to trust with friendship.

True, James was well-read, but not nearly as well-read as he thought he was. His book of short intellectual profiles, Cultural Amnesia, contained 126 brief and erudite snapshots of influential thinkers, of whom 124 were writers, 1 was a musician and 1 a film-maker. Not a scientist, a mathematician, an engineer, or a visual artist (apart from that film-maker) anywhere to be seen. Evidently, he could only think in words and not by any other means, something which is rather odd for a person whose fame was made with TV. The cognitive provincialism of this book echoes the cultural provincialism of his compilations of Japanese advertisements. Indeed, James’ most famous poem, “Japanese Maple”, talks about the visual beauty of the tree with barely any description of it; only the future colour of the tree is anticipated, with the one word “flame”. This is not a poetry strong in images.

James could string two words together, but numbers were something else. His last act was to become, like many people of his age-group have done, a strident climate-change denier. There is an Australian slang expression that catches his smugness and selfishness well: “I’m alright, Jack.” This smug child of the Sydney Push, when push came to shove, showed he was willing to shove all of us younger than himself into the bush fires of global warming.

Yellow Bird

The mantis stalks the cicada, unaware of the yellow bird behind.

Czechoslovakian history

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, where Britain and France sought to appease Hitler by signing away the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. Last month was the 50th anniversay of the Warsaw Pact invasion which ended the Prague Spring. More here and here.

And 28 October 2018 was the centenary of the founding of the Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1918.

Recent Reading 15

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.

  • Michael Ovitz [2018]: Who is Michael Ovitz? A Memoir. USA: WH Allen.  This is a fascinating and well-written autiobiography by the co-founder and driving force behind Creative Artists Agency. CAA grew from nothing to dominate the agency business in movies and TV, and then entered M&A consultancy and advertising.  I always admired the chutzpah of this strategy and marveled at its success.  The book explains how CAA’s creative bundling of the products of its writers, actors, musicians, directors and producers enabled it to grow as an agency, and also enabled the diversification:  the expertise gained in strategizing and financially evaluating creative bundles was used to value Hollywood studios (with their back catalogues) as potential acquisition targets. Likewise, the creativity in bundling and the access to diverse talent was used to design successful advertisements.  What surprised me reading this book was that the diversification ended after just two acquisition assignments and one advertising project (Coca Cola’s polar bears).  The key reason for this seems to have been the opposition of Mr Ovitz’s partners and colleagues at CAA, despite the handsome and arguably unearnt rewards his efforts brought many of them.  No good deed ever goes unpunished, it seems.  // The book also presents his experiences as President at Disney.  Although of course we only hear his side of that story, he does seem to have been undermined from before he even began work there. // Overall, the writing is articulate and reflective, and he seems to have grown personally through his career and his apparent failures.  I greatly admire his continued desire and willingness to learn new things – new skills, new businesses, new industries, new cultures, new hobbies.  Doing this requires rare, personal courage.  Few people in American business were as willing as he was to immerse themselves in Japanese culture when doing business in Japan, for instance.  One characteristic Mr Ovitz does not ever display is smugness, and this absence is admirable.
  • Mark Urban [2018]: The Skripal Files: The Life and Near Death of a Russian Spy. UK: Macmillan. A very good account of the back story of Sergei Skripal, mostly based on interviews Urban conducted with him and others before the events which led to Skripal’s name becoming well-known.  Skripal is a former GRU officer who had spied for Britain, was arrested and imprisoned by Russia, and then traded in a spy swap in 2010.  He was living quietly in Salisbury, England until he and his daughter were poisoned with Novichok in 2018. Salisbury, of course, is famous for its Cathedral with its 123-metre-high spire. Roger Hollis, one-time Director-General of MI5 whom some people believe was a GRU agent, was a great-great-nephew of George Moberly, Bishop of Salisbury from 1869 to 1885.  The good Bishop’s daughter, Annie Moberly, published a memoir of the family in 1911, Dulce Domum, which for some reason does not mention the spire. In these strange times one has to wonder if her omission was deliberate.
  • Howard Blum [2018]: In the Enemy’s House: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War. USA: Amberley. A fascinating account of the partnership between FBI agent Robert Lamphere and polyglot Meredith Gardner in decrypting the Venona transcripts of Soviet cable traffic and identifying the Soviet spies mentioned therein.
  • Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor) [1985]: Quiller. Again, superb writing and story-telling, with cliff-hangers all the way through, and close attention required to keep up.  Some superb psychological insight and moving descriptions.  My only scepticism was over the ease with which foreign intelligence services seemed to move undetected within the USSR.
  • Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor) [1989]: Quiller KGB. USA: Spectrum.  I was alerted to this book and an author new to me by allegations that Shore’s supposedly-true book (below) had the same plot as this earlier novel by Hall.  Shore apparently denied having even heard of the earlier book. In truth, the only element which the two plots have in common is that both involve a planned assassination of the then General Secretary of the CPSU, Mikhail Gorbachev, while on a visit to the DDR.  The accusation of plot plagiarism made against Shore is thus without any foundation.  Within a few pages of starting Hall’s book, I realized this was writing of altogether better quality than Shore’s, and also of most other writers of espionage fiction.  Hall often jump cuts from one scene to another, as Sartre did in Nausea, which means the reader has to pay attention. Much is implied rather than expressed, so that attention needs to be close. This is writing of great skill and care, which is no doubt why Hall’s books seem to have been forgotten.
  • Tom Shore [2018]: Pilgrim Spy: My secret war against Putin, the KGB and the Stasi. UK: Coronet.  This is well-written and fast-paced, and was exciting to read.  It purports to be a factual memoir by a British special forces agent in the DDR in the late Summer and Autumn of 1989, who allegedly foiled a dastardly plan by revanchist Russians in league with the Red Army Faction to assassinate Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin on 7 October 1989. The plot hinges on the resolution of several subtle, nested epistemic modal questions – eg, What did A know about B’s knowledge of C’s affiliation?   If the story is to be believed, this undercover agent was also – himself, personally – responsible for the success of the Monday evening Lutheran Church gatherings in Leipzig that helped to defeat the SED Government of the DDR, because he was able to ask a western radio network to advertize the event.  Whether true or false, this account is immensely condescending.  There are several reasons why I find the story most unlikely to be true. First, surely the book would need official security service clearance for publication. It does not appear to have been submitted for approval.  If it had been, would we not now be hearing about an official investigation of rogue or treacherous SIS officers?  Secondly, there is almost no deep description of the Monday evening gatherings. These were momentous events, both in terms of the fall of communism in the DDR and in terms of peaceful regime change anywhere at any time.  How many people attended each week? What was said or sung at these events? What was the mood like? How did the mood change from week to week? Did people know each other?  Were there obvious informers or Stasi agents present?  Did participants leave together and straight away? Someone who was present at these events, as the author claims he was, would surely have more to say on them. The lack of such deep, textured description, like a non-barking dog, is a strong indication that this book is a work of fiction.  Finally, the author says almost nothing about what he did, and how he ate and lived, between these weekly meetings.  A small point that arose because I was reading the book on 5 October 2018:  5 October 1989 was a Thursday, not a Friday.
  • Ben Macintyre [2018]: The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War. UK: Viking.  A great account, well-written as this writer’s books always are, of the case of KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, who spied for Britain and then defected. One disappointment:  Macintyre asserts without sufficient consideration that Roger Hollis was not a Soviet agent, which is the line taken by the authorized MI5 historian, Christopher Andrew.   Firstly, Macintyre quotes Gordievsky quoting a senior KGB official as having dismissed the claim that Hollis was an agent of the KGB (p. 138 of Kindle edition).  Interesting but irrelevant if Hollis had worked for the GRU.  Also, we would expect names of high-level foreign agents to be tightly held, so one senior person not knowing if Hollis was an agent means nothing.  Moreover, the two agencies were rivals and were explicitly prohibited by Stalin from collaborating. Secondly, Macintyre says that the Soviet spy code-named Elli was identified as Leo Long.  As Long did not work for MI5 and Elli did, Long could not have been Elli.  Because not all documents have been released, we still don’t know the full story about Hollis nor, if he was not a Soviet agent, then who was the GRU’s senior spy in Britain at the time.  Given this ignorance, it is disappointing that a writer of Macintyre’s calibre should just accept the incomplete and much contested authorized line. For a critique of Andrew, see Paul Monk’s article in Quadrant (April 2010). For more on Hollis, see here.
  • Robert Hutton [2018]: Agent Jack: The True Story of MI5’s Secret Nazi Hunter. UK: W&N.  The true story behind Anthony Quinn’s fictional account, cited below.  Well-written, well-paced and extremely interesting.  In order to determine if the Nazis had created a secret network of 5th columnists in wartime Britain, MI5 created one, led by an inspired agent, Eric Roberts.  It just goes to show that if you want to get the credit for fixing something, you may first have to break it yourself.  Who knew Britain had harboured so many would-be Gauleiter, including most energetically, Marita Perigoe, the daughter of the popular antipodean composer, May Brahe.  It is interesting that Roger Hollis opposed this activity and managed to prevent a similar false network to attract left-wing sumpathizers being created in Britain after WW II.
  • Simon Mawer [2018]: Prague Spring. UK: Little, Brown. A thriller centred on Prague in a few days in August 1968 (so not spring at all), before and during the Warsaw Pact invasion.  It was nice to see a mention of the brave Milada Horáková.  I liked the story about the characters initially in Prague rather more than the escapades of the two hitchhiking students.  With the latter story, it felt that the author was really writing about his younger, more naive self, and, truthfully, that self did not interest me. But then, I have never found Bildungsromane much worth reading.  One factual error:  The Czech character Lenka Konečková, daughter of a fictional character, Lukáš Vadinsky, tried and executed with Rudolf Slánsky, writes an article for a student newspaper in which she names some of those executed (Chapter 33). The names listed include London, the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. But Artur London was not executed. It is not clear if this is an error by the author or by the character (ie, the author knows the truth about London, but the character does not).  Although it may have been the case that people in Czechoslovakia did not initially know the fate of the accused in the Slánsky trials, this would surely have been known to a politically-active family member such as Ms Konečková by this time in 1968.
  • Henry Porter [2018]: Firefly. UK:  Quercus. A gripping and empathetic thriller set on the Syrian refugee trail to Europe that runs via Greece and the Balkans.  The book is also a superb ethnography of life as a contemporary refugee and life as an anti-terrorist agent among refugees. The way we live now, it seems.
  • Charles Cumming [2018]: The Man Between. UK: HarperCollins. Another pacy spy thriller from Cumming.  The writing is good, although filmic, but not as gripping as Scott’s.  One has to wonder if stories are hard to come by when the main character, Kit Carradine, is a successful writer of spy fiction with almost identical initials to the author’s, who gets caught up in an actual spy mission.  Fomo, pomo or projection?  A quibble:  Would a security agency debrief a much-sought and well-known informant in an apartment in central London where she could be seen from the street?  One stylistic bug which a good editor should fix are long, discursive sentences with repeated changes of focus which frequent the book.  Do books still have editors, I wonder?
  • Manda Scott [2018]: A Treachery of Spies. UK: Bantam. A modern-day French murder mystery that reaches back to treachery and double-crossing in the French resistance and the SOE in WWII.  Riveting, although occasionally implausible: How convenient that the central resistance action was captured on cinefilm?
  • S C Brown [2017]: Initiation: A Spy Story. A well-written thriller set mostly in wartime France, playing on what we know about the sympathies of the leadership of the Abwehr, German military intelligence, and drawing on the moral dilemmas faced by ordinary French citizens. Includes that long-standing problem of espionage: how to transmit a true message to your enemy, and have them believe it?
  • Anthony Quinn [2018]: Our Friends in Berlin. UK: Jonathan Cape.  An easy, well-written thriller set in wartime Britain amongst a circle of would-be German agents.  Lots of single, double and triple bluffing. I liked the subtle allusion to J. Alfred Prufrock and the hook for a sequel involving an upper-class English Soviet spy.
  • Jeremy Duns [2018]:  Agent of Influence: Antony Terry and the Shaping of Cold War Fact and Fiction.  Skerry Publishing.  A brief account of the life and times of an influential British journalist who may have also been employed by MI6, as part of a concerted effort to place foreign intelligence staff into foreign correspondent positions with British newspapers.
  • Claire Harman [2001]: Fanny Burney: A Biography. USA: Alfred A. Knopf. A fine biography of the writer, aka Madame d’Arblay.  The last part of the book, after Madame d’Arblay’s return to Britain from her entrapment for a decade in France, felt rushed, as if the author was keen to finish.  One quibble: Harman repeats the claim that Mrs Clara Bolton was Benjamin Disraeli’s mistress.  As far as I can tell, the only evidence for this claim is a statement made by Disraeli’s lawyer, Philip Rose, after Disraeli’s death five decades after the alleged affair (and four decades after Mrs Bolton’s own death).  The letters between Mrs Bolton and Mr Disraeli don’t seem to support this claim.  Imagined affairs appear to have been a common trope in biographers’ lives of prominent Georgians and Victorians.
  • Craig Brown [2017]: Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret.  UK: Fourth Estate.   What a sad life she had.  Was it Clive James who said that celebrity is a mask that gradually eats away the face of the person wearing it?
  • John Menadue [1999]: Things You Learn Along the Way. Australia: David Lovell Publishing. An insightful account of a life, by someone who worked at the pinnacle of political, media and government power – with Gough Whitlam, Rupert Murdoch and Malcolm Fraser. As Australian ambassador to Japan (1977-1980), Menadue got to know the brothers Tony Glynn (1926-1994) and Paul Glynn (1928- ), long-serving Australian Catholic Marist priests working in Japan.  Some personal interest, as they are cousins of cousins-in-law of mine.

Continue reading ‘Recent Reading 15’

Recent Reading 14

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books. The books are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recently-read book at the top.

  • Kate McClymont and Linton Besser [2014]: He Who Must Be Obeid. Australia: Random House.   The life and fast times of Eddie Obeid, perhaps, despite the strong calibre of the competition, the most corrupt person ever to be a Cabinet Minister in NSW.
  • Bob Carr [2018]: Run for Your Life.  Australia:  Melbourne University Press. A memoir mostly of Carr’s times as Premier of NSW (1995-2005), running a government which was, untypically for NSW, seemingly uncorrupt.
  • Aldous Huxley [1931]:  Music at Night and Other Essays. Flamingo reissue.
  • Keith Gessen [2018]: A Terrible Country. Fitzcarraldo Editions.  Writing as smooth as a gimlet, and extremely engrossing.
  • Hayden Eastwood [2018]: Like Sodium in Water: A Memoir of Home and Heartache. South Africa: Jonathan Ball.  A well-written but very sad memoir of growing up in Harare, Zimbabwe following Independence, by a member of the family mentioned here.
  • David Margolick [2018]: The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. And Robert F. Kennedy.  USA: Rosetta Books.
  • Naveed Jamali and Ellis Henican [2015]:  How to Catch a Russian Spy.  USA:  Simon & Schuster.
  • Geoffrey Robertson [2018]: Rather His Own Man: In Court with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers. UK: Biteback Publishing.  Is there anyone Robertson does not know, from Malcolm Turnbull to Prince Charles to Julian Assange?
  • Edward Wilson [2018]:  South Atlantic Requiem. UK:  Arcadia Books.  The latest in the Catesby espionage series, as always very well-written and dancing recklessly across the border between fact and fiction.
  • Philip Toynbee [1954]: Friends Apart, A Memoir of Esmond Romilly & Jasper Ridley in the Thirties. UK: Sidgwick and Jackson Ltd.
  • Roland Philipps [2018]: A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean.  UK:  Vintage.
  • James Comey [2018]:  A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.  USA: Macmillan.  Superbly structured and well-written.  Engrossing.  Bam’s best choice for head of the FBI. Would make a very good AG.
  • Pat Sloan (Editor) [1938]: John Cornford: A Memoir. UK: Jonathan Cape.
  • James McNeish [2008]:  The Sixth Man: The Extraordinary Life of Paddy Costello.  UK: Quartet Books.  Many have argued that Costello was a Soviet agent, not least MI5 in an international campaign which ended his New Zealand diplomatic career and made it difficult for him to secure other posts.  But the person running the anti-Communist division of MI5 and then MI5 itself at the time himself later came under suspicion – very plausibly – of being a Soviet agent, so the case against Costello, to my mind, is not at all decisive. The MI5 campaign against Costello may well have been a diversive smokescreen from chasing genuine Soviet agents.
  • Charlotte Bingham [2018]: MI5 and Me: A Coronet among the Spooks. UK:  Bloomsbury Publishing. An amusing memoir of working for MI5 as a secretary.
  • William D Cohan [2008]: The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Frères & Co. USA:  Penguin.
  • Timothy Garton Ash [2015]: The File: A Personal History.  UK:  Atlantic Books.
  • Richard Davenport-Hines [2018]: Enemies Within: Communists, the Cambridge Spies and the Making of Modern Britain.  UK: William Collins. An attempt to position the Cambridge spy ring in the context of its culture and time.
  • Fyodor M. Burlatsky [1992]: Khrushchev and the First Russian Spring. USA:  Charles Scribner’s Sons. A fascinating inside account of the reformist thinking and actions of Nikita Khrushchev and Yuri Andropov in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • William Taubman [2017]: Gorbachev: His Life and Times.  USA:  Simon and Schuster.
  • Tom Mangold [1993]: Cold Warrior:  The True Story of the West’s Spyhunt Nightmare. USA:  Simon and Schuster.
  • Jefferson Morley [2017]: The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton. USA:  Macmillan. Oddly, Morley mentions Teddy Kollek knowing both Angleton and Philby, but not that Kollek was a guest at Philby’s wedding to Litzi Friedmann in Vienna in 1934.
  • Robert Graves [1960]: Goodbye to All That. UK: Penguin.
  • Richard Pipes [2015]: Alexander Yakovlev: The Man whose Ideas delivered Russia from Communism.  USA:  Northern Illinois University Press.
  • Charles Hamblin [2017]:  Linguistics and the Parts of the Mind.  (Written ca. 1968. Posthumous edition prepared by Phillip Staines) UK:  Cambridge Scholars Publishing.  Remarkably prescient of Belief-Desire-Intention models of autonomous agency.
  • Masha Gessen [2012]: The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. USA:  Granta Books.
  • Masha Gessen [2017]: The Future is History:  How Totalitarianism reclaimed Russia. USA:  Granta Books.
  • Daniel Ellsberg [2017]: The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear Planner.  USA: Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Jacques Pauw [2017]: The President’s Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in Power and out of Prison.  South Africa: Tafelberg.
  • Anne Goldgar [2008]: Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age.  USA:  University of Chicago Press.  Why would I be reading this in this time of ICOs, I wonder?
  • Artur London [1970]: The Confession.  UK: Morrow.  A famous account by one of the defendants in the Slansky Trial in Czechoslovakia in 1951.
  • Hubert Ripka [1950]: Czechoslovakia Enslaved: The Story of the Communist Coup d’Etat. London: Victor Gollancz.
  • D J Taylor [2010]: Bright Young People:  The Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918-1940.  UK: Vintage.
  • Edith Olivier [1989]:  Edith Olivier: From Her Journals, 1924-1948. Edited by Penelope Middleboe. UK:  Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
  • Philip Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah [2017]: The Knowledge we have lost in Information: The History of Information in Modern Economics.  USA:  Oxford University Press.
  • James McNeish [2003]: Dance of the Peacocks: New Zealanders in Exile in the Time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung.  UK: Vintage.
  • Francis Wheen [1992]:  Tom Driberg:  His Life and Indiscretions.  UK:  Pan.  This book is riveting reading, spoilt by its too-strong sympathy for its subject.
  • Sheila Fitzpatrick [2017, 4th edition]:  The Russian Revolution.  UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Oliver J Lodge [1916]: Raymond, or Life and Death: With Examples of the Evidence. USA:  George H Doran Company.
  • Launcelot Cranmer-Byng [1947]: The Vision of Asia. UK: John Murray.
  • Sam Dastyari [2017]:  One Halal of a Story.  Australia:  Melbourne University Press.
  • Hilary Rodham Clinton [2017]:  What Happened.  USA: Simon and Schuster.  Indeed!
  • David Burke [2009]: The Spy who came in from the Co-op: Melita Norwood and the Ending of Cold War Espionage. UK:  Boydell Press.
  • Alan Vaughan [1974]: Patterns of Prophecy.  USA:  HarperCollins.
  • Tom Bower [1996]: The Perfect English Spy: Sir Dick White and the Secret War, 1935-90.  UK: Mandarin.
  • Jenny Hocking [2016]: The Dismissal Dossier: Everything you were never meant to know about November 1975 (Updated Edition). Australia: Melbourne University Press.  Sadly, even after this account, I feel we do not yet know all the duplicity around the events of 11 November 1975.
  • Anna Thomasson [2015]: A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing.  UK:  Macmillan.  A wonderful account of the December-May friendship of Edith Olivier (1872-1948), later a writer, and artist Rex Whistler (1905-1944), who first met in 1924.  Given their ages at the time of meeting, it would be more accurate to describe this as an August-March friendship.
  • Evelyn Waugh [1964]: A Little Learning: the First Volume of an Autobiography.  UK:  Chapman and Hall.
  • Edith Olivier [1945]:  Four Victorian Ladies of Wiltshire.  UK:  Faber and Faber.
  • Edith Olivier [1938]:  Without Knowing Mr Walkley.  UK:  Faber and Faber.
  • William Sturgis Bigelow [1908]: Buddhism and Immortality.
  • Garry Wills [2014]:  Making Make-Believe Real.  USA:  Yale University Press.
  • Garry Wills [2017]: The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. USA:  Open Road Media.