Recent Reading 17

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

  • Gautam Raghavan (Editor) (2018): West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White. Penguin. Fascinating accounts from a very diverse group of people who worked in the Obama White House, diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion, background, and role.
  • Geoffrey Elliott and Harold Shukman (2013): Secret Classrooms: An Untold Story of the Cold War. Faber and Faber. A fascinating account of the British Government’s Joint Services School for Linguists (JSSL) which trained selected national servicemen (conscripts) in Russian and a few other languages between 1951 and 1960. Many graduates went on to illustrious careers across society, including the two authors. I have met several graduates of the US military’s similar school in Monterey, CA, which started with teaching Japanese in November 1941, and they were all very bright people. How short-sighted that the UK Government does not continue with such training.
  • Diana Mitchell (2021): An African Memoir: White Woman, Black Nationalists. Published independently. Diana Mitchell (1932-2016) was a Zimbabwean journalist and historian whom I knew slightly in the 1980s. Born in Southern Rhodesia, she was a brave white liberal during the Smith years (1962-1980), standing unsuccessfully twice for Parliament (in 1974 and 1977), and opposing the racism of the Rhodesian Front and parties to its right. As she and other liberals argued, denial of majority rule was not only immoral, it was stupid, as it created an hostility between communities whose long-run consequences can still be seen in Zimbabwe today. This is a very moving memoir, which has been completed by Mitchell’s children and her friends after her death. They are to be commended for doing this. The memoir has a lot of repetition, and could have done with more editing. She introduces people with the same annotations multiple times, for instance, as if this was a concatenation of independent newspaper articles (which perhaps some of it was). When I knew her, Diana Mitchell was a font of amusing anecdotes about the leadership of Zimbabwe. Apart from the chapters on her sad, but very interesting, upbringing, on only a few occasions does she tell any amusing or interesting stories. Zimbabwe was and still is a small country where the educated black elite all knew each other, went to high school together (since there were so few high schools for black children), spent time in prison together, and socialized with one another. The writing therefore feels as if she is holding things back – surely she knows more gossip and anecdotes than she lets on here. I hope that she recorded the anecdotes and has lodged the recordings somewhere for posterity. Just a footnote for the record. Mitchell’s Rhodesia Front opponent for the seat of Highlands North in the 1974 Rhodesian general election was lawyer Fergus Blackie (1937-2021), whose integrity she speaks highly of. He was later (1986) appointed a judge of the Zimbabwe High Court before displeasing the ZANU-PF Minister for Justice and being hounded from office in 2002. He was a Roman Catholic and a Jesuit friend of his has written a tribute to him following his death in 2021, available here. How odd that his obituarist, Anthony Egan SJ, failed to mention Blackie’s two terms in the Rhodesian Parliament (1974-1979), representing the RF. He may have been, as Mitchell implies, an entryist, trying to reform Rhodesia from within its ruling party. He may also have changed his views about majority rule between 1974 and his death. But he still did represent a racist political party in the national parliament of a white-minority-ruled country, and this fact of his life should not be forgotten in tributes to him following his death.
  • Richard M. Bissell, Jr. (1996): Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. Yale University Press. Written with Jonathan E. Lewis and Frances T. Pudlo.
  • 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. In this respect, South Africa is very similar to Zimbabwe. 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.It is ennobling to encounter such courage in the face of mortal danger, of the absence of any good effect on the world, and of the great possibility of being eternally forgotten.
  • 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 those of us 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.
  • Tim Tate (2021):The Spy who was left out in the Cold: The Secret History of Agent Goleniewski. Bantam Press.
  • Gerard O’Connell (2019):The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Account of the Conclave That Changed History. Orbis.
  • Shaun Crowe (2018): Whitlam’s Children: Labor and the Greens in Australia. Melbourne University Press. An interesting sociological analysis, but not exciting writing.
  • Malcolm Turnbull (1988): The Spycatcher Trial. Hardie Grant Books. Turnbull’s account of the trial in which he defended Peter Wright is riveting.
  • Alain Brossat and David Fernbach (2016): Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism. Verso. Fascinating.
  • Richard Steyn (2015): Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness. Jonathan Ball.
  • Frank Brennan (2021): Observations on the Pell Proceedings. Connor Court Publishing.
  • George Pell (2021): Prison Journal, volumes 1, 2 and 3. Ignatius Press.
    Let me begin by stating at the outset that I am not a lawyer, and that this entire blog post is a personal opinion. It is my opinion alone, and it is not an opinion of any organization with which I am associated. Moreover, this blogpost is not legal advice, and should not be understood or construed as legal advice.

    It was obvious to anyone who looked at the details that George Cardinal Pell was innocent of the charges made against him in the most significant Australian criminal trial of the 21st Century. Never mind the laws of the state of Victoria, the claims made against Pell broke the laws of physics. Only believers in miracles could imagine the charges were physically possible (given the ritual clothes worn by archbishops, the layout of the alleged locations, and the timing of events). Moreover, the alleged crimes supposedly took place in the presence of hundreds of witnesses, who by the time of the trial – mirabile dictu – had all forgotten witnessing anything untoward at all. Indeed, these witnesses had forgotten immediately after the alleged events, as no one reported at the time anything untoward, as if subject to some alien mind invasion.

    The reason that the trial is the most significant of the century is that the manifest, and very evidently manifest, miscarriage of justice had to be overturned by the full bench of the Australian High Court, deciding unanimously to void the jury’s assessment. Thank goodness they did. The court’s decision showed that judges of higher courts could indeed over-ride wrongful (in this case, unreasonable and unjustifiable) decisions of juries, despite the importance our common-law judicial system places on jury judgments. Although I hope this lesson does not need to be applied very often, it may have significant influence on the future practice of Australian criminal justice.

    Being sympathetic towards Pell’s predicament, I turned enthusiastically to his prison diaries. I have to report great disappointment. His diaries are not those of Antonio Gramsci or Ruth First or Hugh Lewin or Artur London or Vaclav Havel. They are mundane and everyday – Mr Pooter goes to prison – and, like Charles Pooter, the good Cardinal takes himself very seriously. He cannot resist criticizing people who disagree with him – gay people, environmentalists, climate activists – just as he did for years before his misfortune. He seems unable to countenance alternative views to his own hard lines. I seem to recall Matthew 7:1 warned against this: “Judge not, lest ye be judged”, but who am I to tell a Cardinal that he lacks knowledge of the Scriptures. Like many people both within and outside the Church (including the current Pope), I find such inflexible criticism ignorant and offensive.

    Pell’s temperament throughout the diaries shows someone perpetually in a bad mood, and quick to become angry or frustrated. Of course, if anyone had a right to be out of sorts it is someone locked up in quasi-solitary confinement upon a miscarriage of justice. But a Prince of the Church should provide the rest of us with a good example, not a lesson to avoid. Perhaps the anger arises from his great sense of self-importance.

    The diaries are not reflective or engaged with any intellectual questions. Little of Pell’s interior life or beliefs or ways of being in the world are subject to any reconsideration by his experience in prison, at least as far as these journals relate. Pell does not impress me as an intellectual. He does not ask himself any deep questions or reflect on them. Surprisingly, one subject he seems not to know much about is Roman Catholic theology: He talks repeatedly about God only being able to act in the world through human beings. Surely this opinion is nonsense for an adherent of Catholicism. Has he forgotten the miracles – those divine interventions in Nature – that the Church requires for declarations of beatification and canonization (sainthood) to be made? Perhaps a good understanding of theology is no longer required for election to the College of Cardinals. Or has he just watched too many American Protestant tele-evangelists, something he reports doing in the diaries?

    Before his miscarriage of justice, I had a very low estimation of Pell’s angry, hard-line Catholicism and his apparently easy willingness to ignore Scripture when it suited him (eg, the verse from Matthew quoted above) while insisting on it otherwise, and I still do. Reading his prison diaries has not changed my opinion of the fundamental immorality of those views and the offensive immorality of berating other people for not adhering to his interpretation of Church doctrines (an interpretation, he should know, that is one of several).

    On many matters of Catholic doctrine, the Church shows an admirable flexibility – from allowing British Prime Ministers to have their third wedding in a Catholic Church (because Boris Johnson’s first two marriages were not under Catholic rites) to allowing the obligation of Catholics to attend Sunday mass to include anytime from sunset on Saturday (by redefining “Sunday” to include the evening before. Indeed, I know of a diocese where the Bishop has redefined Sunday as starting from sunset on Friday, due to the severe shortage of priests in that diocese.) Yet on matters about which an aging Cardinal should arguably have no public opinion at all – eg, on the necessity for tackling climate change – he lectures us all at length. On matters which most of us consider deeply personal – eg, marriage and family, gender and sexual orientation, care for the dying – he adopts positions many find offensive, and with an entirely un-Christian absence of sympathy or flexibility, he berates those who disagree with him. He does so in these prison diaries, where – one would have thought – some humility might be called for.

    I am still sympathetic to Pell’s judicial plight and admire his courage in facing his fate squarely. I think most people experiencing such an extended period of quasi-solitary confinement would have changed, but there is little evidence of personal change in these diaries. As Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, Pell seems to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.

  • Tim Tate (2021): The Spy who was left out in the Cold: The Secret History of Agent Goleniewski. Bantam.
  • Gerard O’Connell (2019): The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Account of the Conclave That Changed History. Orbis.
  • Andrew Lownie (2021): The Mountbattens: Their Lives & Loves. Pegasus.
  • Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley (2021) Radicals: Remembering the Sixties. NewSouth Publishing.
  • Victoria E. Bonnell, Ann Cooper and Gregory Freidin (1994): Russia at the Barricades: Eyewitness Accounts of the August 1991 Coup. Routledge.
  • Serhii Plokhy (2014): The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union. OneWorld Publications.
  • Alexander Waugh (2008): The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • R. N. Carew Hunt (1964): The Theory and Practice of Communism. Penguin.
  • Daniel Mendelsohn (2007): The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million. Harper Press.
  • Robin Denniston (2007): Thirty Secret Years: A. G. Denniston’s Work in Signals Intelligence 1914-1944. Polperro Heritage Press.
  • John F. McCormick (1940): Scholastic Metaphysics. Loyala University Press.
  • Ray Jenkins (2009): A Pacifist at War: The Life of Francis Cammaerts. Hutchinson.
  • Arthur M. Eckstein (2016): Bad Moon Rising: How the Weather Underground Beat the FBI and Lost the Revolution. Yale University Press.
  • John Schultz (2020): The Conspiracy Trial of the Chicago Seven. University of Chicago Press, Revised Edition.
  • Tom Hayden (1988): Reunion: A Memoir. Random House.
  • I. F. Stone (1963): The Haunted Fifties – and a glance at the Startling Sixties. Random House.
  • Leo Marks (1998): Between Silk and Cyanide: A Code Maker’s War 1941-45. HarperCollins. A riveting and well-written account of a secret life during World War II as an implementer of cryptographic systems, with many poignant moments. SOE and the French resistance would not have been nearly as effective without such intelligence and guile working behind them. How could a person with such a crucial role out of uniform respond to the white feathers his family received in the mail?
  • Andrew Tully (1962): CIA: The Inside Story. William Morrow.
  • Paddy Hayes (2015): Queen of Spies: Daphne Park, Britain’s Cold War Spy Master. Gerald Duckworth & Co. The story of the woman who represented SIS in Zaire and in North Vietnam (following Brian Stewart).
  • Hella Pick (2021): Invisible Walls: A Journalist in Search of Her Life. W & N. A fascinating and well-written account of the very fortunate life of an excellent journalist, from refugee from Nazism to hand-maiden of Independence in West Africa, to renowned foreign correspondent.
  • Nancy Lisagor and Frank Lipsius (1988): A Law Unto Itself: The Untold Story of the Law Firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. William Morrow.
  • John McLaren (2003): Free Radicals: On the Left in Postwar Melbourne. Australian Scholarly Publishing.
  • William Shawcross (1990): Dubcek. Touchstone.
  • A. J. P. Kenny (1985): A Path from Rome: An Autobiography. Sidgwick and Jackson.
  • Anthony Kenny (2003): Action, Emotion and Will. Routledge, Second Edition.
  • Owen Walker (2021): Built on a Lie: The Rise and Fall of Neil Woodford and the Fate of Middle England’s Money. Penguin Business.
  • Hermione Lee (2020): Tom Stoppard: A Life. Faber & Faber.
  • Geoffrey Nyarota (2018): The Graceless Fall of Robert Mugabe: The End of a Dictator’s Reign. Zebra Press.
  • Ray Ndlovu (2018): In the Jaws of the Crocodile: Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Rise to Power in Zimbabwe. Penguin Books.
  • Peter Godwin (2010): The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe. Picador.
  • Stephen Kinzer (2019): Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. Henry Holt & Company.
  • Stephen Kinzer (2013): The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War. Times Books.
  • Douglas Rogers (2019): Two Weeks In November: The Astonishing Untold Story of the Operation that toppled Mugabe. Short Books. Fascinating, although I am not sure how true this story is.
  • Simon Kuper (2021): The Happy Traitor: Spies, Lies and Exile in Russia: The Extraordinary Story of George Blake. Profile Books.
  • Jonathan Ancer (2017): Spy – Uncovering Craig Williamson. Jacana Media.
  • Henrik Ellert and Dennis Malcolm Anderson (2020): A Brutal State of Affairs: The Rise and Fall of Rhodesia. Weaver Press. It is astonishing that a book by two protagonists in Zimbabwe’s Second Chimurenga (1967-1979) could emerge 40-something years after the events it describes.
  • James Comey (2021): Saving Justice: Truth, Transparency, and Trust. Macmillan.
  • T. Selby Henrey (1931): Good Stories From Oxford And Cambridge. Simpkin Marshall.
  • I. M. Birtwistle (2015): A Moment Ago: A Selection of Poems. Buff Press.
  • David Crowe (2019): Venom: Vendettas, Betrayals and the Price of Power. HarperCollins.
  • Hadley Freeman (2020): House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family. Fourth Estate. A fascinating and compelling account of a talented family whose members’ lives were disrupted or worse by two world wars.
  • Barbara Hosking (2017): Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant. Biteback Publishing. Fascinating.
  • Al Gabay (1997): Messages From Beyond: Spiritualism and Spiritualists in Melbourne’s Golden Age. Melbourne University Press.
  • Alfred J. Gabay (1992): The Mystic Life of Alfred Deakin. Cambridge University Press.
  • Garry Wills (1988): Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home. William Heinemann.
  • Giles Milton (2021): Checkmate in Berlin: The First Battle of the Cold War. John Murray.
  • Judith Brett (2017): The Enigmatic Mr Deakin. Text Publishing. My respect for Alfred Deakin, which was never high, increases as I learn of his spiritual and poetic life. He admired the transcendentalists and so made a special side-trip to Concord, MA. on his first visit to the USA, arranged to see irrigation schemes in California. Deakin was the key architect of the industrial arbitration system adopted in Australia, in which independent tribunals governed capital-labour relations for close on a century. I wonder to what extent he was influenced by Teddy Roosevelt’s resolution of the Great Coal Strike in the USA in 1902.

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