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.

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