Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (1994)

‘Many tricky dicks walk the trail.’ (Jean-Baptiste Porteur, p.88)

I saw this book in several second-hand bookshops before I picked it up for a pound imagining, from the stylish cover, that Davidson was one of the new young generation of thriller writers.

How wrong I was. Davidson was born in 1922 and published his first novel, The Night of Wenceslas, in 1960, the year before John le Carré made his debut – i.e. he is very much one of the old generation of thriller writers.

After Wenceslas Davidson published a novel every couple of years throughout the 1960s and early 70s until 1978 when he disappeared from view. After a gap of 16 years he returned with Kolymsky Heights, his last novel, which gained rave reviews.

Is it any good? What’s it about? Does it make me want to go in search of his other seven thrillers?

Kolymsky Heights

Kolymsky Heights is relatively long at 478 pages and quite quickly you realise this is because Davidson’s defining quality is a long, drawn-out and frustrating, round-the-houses approach.

We are introduced to a fusty old don in Oxford, Professor Lazenby. His secretary, Miss Sonntag, opens a letter from Sweden which turns out to be empty. Until the prof roots around in the bottom of it and finds some cigarette papers. These contain indentations. He calls in a pupil of his who now works in ‘Scientific Services’ and who, a few years earlier, had called on the Prof and asked him to do a little gentle spying – in fact more like ‘alert observation’ – when he was attending a conference in the Eastern Bloc.

Lazenby calls up this man, Philpott, to come and interpret the cigarette papers. They realise the bumps on the surface contain a message coded as a set of numbers. These turn out to relate to books of the Bible, giving chapter and verse numbers. By piecing together the fragmented quotes they arrive at a message which, in an elliptical way, refers to a dark-haired man from the north who can speak tongues and who the writer wants to visit him.

If you like crosswords, I think you’d like this book. Or if you’re partial to railway timetables. Precise hours and timings are given for everything, and become vitally important in the later stages of the book.

Philpott passes the message up to a level of the British security services where it is shared with the Americans. They have spy satellites patrolling the earth and photographing every inch of Russia, especially secret installations. Recent satellite photos indicate that a well-established camp in the heart of Siberia has had an explosion and fire, and shows figures tramping amidst the ruins. The guy in charge of monitoring this, W. Murray Hendricks, calls in a second opinion, a naturalist who confirms that… the figures walking around appear to be… ape-men! They have the stance of men but… their arms and legs are the wrong shape!

This chimes with the opening section of prose right at the start of the book, a (characteristically unexplained) preface which appears to be a message written from someone working at a Russian security base, writing to a colleague who is about to join him. It describes the way a baby mammoth was found deeply embedded in ice, was chipped out and transported back to the base, where it turned out not to be a mammoth at all but a human, a woman lying on her side, who had fallen into a crevasse along with some bags and a tusk, and was heavily pregnant (big and bulky with tusks – that’s what caused the initial mistaken diagnosis).

So we have learned that: a 40,000-year-old frozen pregnant woman is brought to a top secret Russian research base. Some time later, American satellite photos show ape-like men at a top secret Russian research base. Are we dealing with a 1990s version of The Island of Dr Moreau?

If we are, it takes a bloody long time to get there, because we are still with Philpott and Lazenby trying to interpret the coded and elliptical cigarette-paper message. Eventually it dawns on the Prof that the reference is to a dark-haired, native American from British Columbia, a man known by his clan name of ‘Raven’, a man he met at a scientific conference in Oxford some 15 years back, which had also been attended by some Russians.

About the Raven

The novel then switches to give us Raven’s complicated biography. Christened Jean-Baptiste Porteur, he was brought up in the matrilinear society of the Gitksan people in the Skeena river region of British Columbia, north-west Canada, before being dumped into the care of a local missionary. Porteur was taught English enough to excel in his studies but then ran away to sea for a few years. Eventually he returned to settled society and took up serious studies, becoming known as Johnny Porter.

Porter is a super-gifted linguist, one of the few people to be in a position to make academic studies of the families of languages spoken by the natives of the Pacific North-West from the inside. He publishes work on the subject, is awarded a PhD and academic prizes, but remains, nonetheless, a surly non-player of the academic game.

Now he comes to think about it, Prof Lazenby remembers getting really drunk with Raven and another man, a Russian research scientist named Rogachev, at a conference in Oxford years ago. This Russian, Rogachev, then disappeared off the grid some 15 years ago, rumoured to have joined some secret research facility. They have (through a series of deductions which I found too obscure to follow) decided that the man sending the cigarette messages must be Rogachev. And that he wants to talk to Raven.

So then the CIA are tasked with tracking down Johnny Porter and find him in a remote fishing village in British Columbia. Lazenby flies out there accompanied by Philpott who hands him over to a fresh-faced young CIA man  named Walters. The CIA are now heavily involved. At least I think it’s the CIA. Langley is referred to (the world-famous headquarters of the CIA) but the agency itself is not mentioned explicitly. Davidson prefers to keep things shadowy and instead refers to ‘the plan’ which appears to be shared by the Brits and the Yanks.

They finally track down Porter to a backwoods cabin, and present him with all the evidence that Rogachev wants him to travel to a top secret Russian research base in deepest Siberia. In fact, its precise location is still unknown (I found this a little too obscure to understand: I thought they had satellite photos. Like most of the novel, these early passages required rereading to try and figure out what was going on, and even then I often gave up trying to understand the minutiae and just read on regardless.)

Raven becomes a Korean seaman

A vast amount of effort then goes in to describing Johnny’s trip by tramp steamer from Japan up into the Arctic Ocean.

As soon as he said yes to the mission, Raven (shall I call him Raven or Porter? Raven has more mystique) was taken to some kind of camp where he was trained in spying and spycraft.

This experience, which took several months, is not actually described in the book, simply referred back to as and when necessary. During his time in ‘the camp’, the surly, secretive multilingual academic Raven has been rather magically transformed into a kind of superspy, a man who will turn out to be capable of carrying out secret rendezvous with other agents, of picking up new outfits and passports and changing identities and carrying himself off as a whole range of different people, fluent in an impressive array of languages (English, Japanese, Korean, half a dozen tribal languages and Russian) which I found increasingly unbelievable.

Thus the next chapter skips over the training camp episode to give us Raven flying into Tokyo where, with typical stubbornness, he promptly refuses to do what the Japanese CIA agent, Yoshi, tells him.

The CIA plan is for Raven to masquerade as a Korean merchant seaman aboard a Japanese tramp steamer, Suzaku Maru, which is scheduled to puff up along the northern, Arctic coast of Siberia, till it gets to the nearest port to the fabled research base.

I still didn’t understand how they know where the base is, or how Johnny will know that, or how they know the ship will stop there, or anywhere nearby. Probably I should have reread the first hundred pages again, to try and piece together the highly elliptical clues. Davidson keeps his cards very close to his chest and only tells the reader the relevant bits of the plan, just before they fall due, and are about to kick in, sometimes only after they’ve happened. The result is a permanent sense of confusion.

Thus it was only a hundred pages later that the reader learns that ‘they’ (presumably the CIA) had approached one of the crew of this tramp steamer, Ushiba, and bribed him with a lot of money to take a pill which mimics the symptoms of yellow fever. He becomes extremely ill just as they dock in Japan. The captain transfers the sick sailor to an ambulance, and Raven just happens to be hanging round and have contacted the ship’s manpower agencies, as it arrives. So he is quickly hired, masquerading as a rough Korean merchant seaman, Sun Wong Chu, complete with pigtail, speaking the language with a slight speech impediment to the Japanese crew, who despise and ignore Koreans anyway.

There’s some tough sailor stuff, in particular a brutal fight with the bosun, who breaks his nose, but Raven works his passage and is gruffly accepted by the others. The ‘plan’ is for he himself to take a yellow fever pill so that, as the ship approaches Green Cape on the Arctic coast of Siberia, it is forced to put in to port and unload him. This he does, and the captain and bosun think he has somehow picked up the earlier sailor’s disease, maybe from infected sheets, mattress etc.

He is treated at Green Cape hospital by several doctors including a woman, Dr Komarova. Then, in a move which bewildered me, Dr Komarova hands him over to the Russian militia who put him on a flight to Yakutsk, where he is transferred to an Aeroflot flight to Murmansk – because that is where the steamer Suzaku Maru, was heading and where, they assume, he will want to rejoin his ship once he is well.

Except that, after recovering for a day or two at a seaman’s mission, Raven goes to a rendezvous with an agent, picks up from him a suitcase containing new clothes and identity papers, goes to the gents loos and shaves off all his hair and Korean pigtail, and emerges with a new identity as Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan, a member of the Chukchee people from the Siberian east, and catches a plane to Irkutsk, changes to one to Yakutsk, then another local flight on to Tchersky, the nearest airport to Green Cape.

Hang on. If it was so easy to get there, to fly there – what was the point of the scam about him pretending to be a Korean sailor? Why the enormous complication of bribing the seaman he replace to take a pill giving him fever (and trusting that the feverish sailor wouldn’t give away the plan) – and then making Raven grow a ponytail and pretend to be Korean for weeks, and get beaten up by the bosun and nearly crushed by dangerous equipment and then take the same damn pill and seriously endanger his health when… he could have just flown there in the first place?

I read all this carefully, but remained completely puzzled. I am obviously missing something and I would say that that sense – the nagging sense of missing some vital piece of the jigsaw – is the permanent and frustrating feeling given by reading this book.

So Raven is now Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan. As planned, he proceeds to the vacant apartment of one Alexei Mikhailovitch Ponomarenko. It turns out that this man was on holiday in the Black Sea when he was approached by the CIA who knew he was a drug smuggler. They threatened to tell the authorities unless he extended his stay on the Black Sea and let his apartment in Tchersky be used by their man Raven. More, it turns out that Khodyan is a friend of Ponomarenko’s, whose identity they have borrowed to create a ‘legend’ (fake identity) for Raven.

Raven discovers Ponomarenko had a gossipy old housekeeper, Anna, and a big brassy girlfriend, Lydia Yakovlevna, both of whom we are introduced to, and both need careful (though very different) handling. Our suave superspy is up to both challenges.

Once unpacked and settled in, Raven goes straight to the Tchersky Transport Company and get a job as a long-distance lorry driver. A great deal of description goes into detailing the work of truck companies in the frozen north of Siberia, and the organisation of this particular company, and the shouty director, Bukarovksy, and various foremen who Raven has to sweet-talk into getting a job – and then we learn a great deal about the different types of trucks.

Davidson very powerfully transports us to a completely strange world, with its language, customs, slang, prejudices and the sheer, backbreaking nature of the work. In summer everything melts, the ships can bring in goods but they can’t be distributed because the countryside is a bog. In winter the ocean freezes over – no more ships – but so does the landscape and so trucks can now drive across it. Especially, it turns out, along the rivers, whose flat, deep-frozen-ice surfaces make perfect highways.

(Davidson gives historical background to the economy of the area, which began as appalling forced labour camps in the 1930s and 40s, but was transformed by the discovery of gold and other minerals in the 1960s to something like a viable, if gruelling, mining economy, pp.188-189)

Raven of course knows how to drive all the trucks (including the small, all-purpose ‘bobik’). He has – by impersonating a Korean seaman, surviving a brutal fight with the bosun, surviving a bout of yellow fever, carrying out a secret rendezvous in an airport and completely transforming his appearance and emerging a fluent Chukchee-speaking truck driver – established himself as a kind of spy superman, speaking as many oriental languages as required and capable of blending in anywhere as a member of the minority Siberian native peoples.

Raven is signed up as a driver and does the work well, earning respect and friendship among the rough crews. At a party of truck drivers Raven is horrified to notice the woman doctor Komarova, who treated him as the sick Korean seaman a few weeks earlier, taking an inordinate interest in him. (Didn’t anyone writing this grand plan foresee that he would meet one set of people as sick Korean and then, returning in a completely different guise, risked bumping into the same people again?)

She comes over and talks. She is interested that he is a Chukchee. She invites him to come and meet her mother who lives in a community of Chukchee. Raven goes and we meet the little old lady and her Chukchee friend who, it turns out (the Chukchee community being so small) was present at his birth!!

Luckily, Raven has memorised the ‘legend’ prepared for him so immaculately that he is able to talk to this old lady about his numerous relatives and their mutual acquaintances (all the time, obviously, speaking in Chukchee). I found this wildly improbable.

On the way back from the little tea party, Raven determines to kill the doctor who has been asking more and more suspicious questions about his background. He gets as far as putting his arm round her neck and is on the verge of snapping it (he is a big, strong lad) when she squeals that she is in on The Plan, she is part of The Plan, she is his contact with Rogachev!

After that they go back to her place, she explains some of the background (her father and Rogachev were in the same labour camp together; she knew him as a kindly uncle when she was a girl), and the big revelation that it was she who bribed a merchant seaman who she was treating to take the coded cigarette papers which Rogachev had smuggled out to her, placed in a letter and addressed to Prof Lazenby, the fateful letter which was opened by his secretary in her calm Oxford office all those months earlier.

Then they have sex. Obviously. Most women I know like to shag a man who’s just tried to murder them.

She was not as well found as Lydia Yakovlevna; lankier, less yielding. But she was lithe, controlled, and quite used, as she said, to getting what she wanted. She was also very much more genuine, arching without histrionics when her moment came, and he arched at the same time, and afterwards she kissed his face and stroked it. (p.247)

Now they work together to smuggle Raven into the research base. This new plan stretched credibility to breaking point and beyond. It turns out the research base is very heavily patrolled and guarded (of course), but is serviced by a rotating squad of native Evenk people, selected from the large Evenk tribe which makes a living herding reindeer nearby. The Evenk are honest and reliable and deeply clannish i.e. don’t talk to outsiders, and, anyway, don’t do anything more secret than laundry, cooking, humping heavy equipment about. None of them has any idea what the research going on at the base is about.

Dr Komarova will smuggle Raven in by using a ruse. The ruse is this:

Rogachev, head of the research station, is attended by one of the Evenk tribe, Stepan Maximovich. Stepan inherited the job from his father. He never leaves the base. Raven will be taken to meet the clan leader of the tribe, Innokenty, and pretend to be one of them, an Evenk, but who moved as a boy to Novosibirsk in the distant south (to explain his rickety accent). He will then give a long complicated story about how he met down in the south some members of a white (Russian) family, worked for them, got to know and admire them, but how the father, some kind of scientist, was sent by the state off to some kind of ‘weather station’ in the north 15 or 16 years earlier. Money was sent the family, but no letters, Then the mother of the family died young, but the daughter survived, grew up, got married and is now pregnant. But she herself is now ill. A few months ago he got a letter from the daughter begging to see him. Raven goes sees her and she begs him to track down her father for her, name of Rogachev. He poked around in local offices and got a hint that M. Rogachev was posted somewhere in the Kolyma region. This woman begged Raven to travel to the north to find her father, and ask him to give her unborn child a name, it being the role of parents to name new babies.

This sob story will persuade the Evenk to smuggle Raven into the top secret research facility, hand him on to the personal assistant Stepan, who is the only one who can gain him admittance to the presence of the legendary scientist, Rogachev – so that Raven can hand deliver to him the letter written by his daughter.

And this is what happens. Dr Komarov takes Raven to a meeting with Innokenty and the tribe (flying there by helicopter on the pretext of making a routine medical visit). The Evenk elders completely accept Raven’s long cock-and-bull story (pp.262-268). They offer to give him all the help he needs (incidentally, also accepting his use of the Evenk language, which is different from the Chukchee Raven has been using in his persona as Kolya. He is, it will be remembered, a super-linguist).

There then follows the cloak and dagger business of smuggling Raven into the site. Raven poses as the driver of a lorry full of parts and goods which Dr Komarova is taking to the base. They pass through the security barrier, the guards checking her and her Chukchee driver (Raven)’s passes and wave through. Then, as is usual, some of the Evenk porters come out into the snow to help unpack the truck in the sub-zero conditions.

Komarova chooses a moment when the guards’ backs are turned and Raven swaps clothes with one of the Evenk tribesmen. This Evenk dresses as Raven, then accompanies Pomarova back to the truck, heavily swathed in scarves and muffles and is signed back out of the complex, while Raven, also heavily muffled, is accepted on the inside by the cohort of Evenk tribesmen currently working there – because they are all in on the conspiracy of him smuggling the letter from the pregnant woman to Rogachev, as agreed off by headman Innokenty. In fact they are almost too much in on the conspiracy as they all smile and grin and wink at the doctor and Raven so much they become tensely afraid the Russian guards will notice something is wrong. But they don’t. They think the native peoples are nuts, anyway.

There follows yet more cloak and dagger as, late that night, when the Evenk have gone to bed in their dormitory, Stepan the personal assistant comes and smuggles Raven out of the Evenk dormitory, through secret passages in the research base, and finally into an enormous luxury underground library, with a gallery running round the bookshelves dotted with masterpiece paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt and so on, and leaves him there.

There’s a whirring of motors and Rogachev, the man who started this whole preposterous series of events, whirs into the library in his wheelchair. Wheelchair. That explains why he couldn’t have gone anywhere to meet a western representative.

First Raven explains the subterfuge which has got him this far, i.e. that he’s delivering a letter to Stepan from his pregnant but ill grand-daughter, and they get an envelope and scribble on a blank sheet which Raven can show to the Evenks as the grateful father’s reply.

That out of the way, Rogachev can at last explain to Raven, and to the impatient reader, what the devil the whole thing is about. What it’s about is this:

The mystery at the heart of Kolymsky Heights

Rogachev tells Raven that the Russians have been experimenting for generations to try and breed a type of intelligent but hardy ape who can function as labour in this bleak, sub-freezing terrain.

(I blinked in disbelief at this point. We know that during the 1930s, 40s and 50s they used slave labour to work these areas. If Russians don’t want to do it nowadays, why not pay the local tribespeople, or do what the rest of the West does and import cheap immigrant labour? Breeding an entire new species seems a rather costly and unpredictable way of solving your labour problem, the kind of fantasy idea which only exists in science fiction novels.)

Rogachev tells a cock-and-bull story (this novel is full of them) about his predecessor, Zhelikov, being in a labour camp, but being plucked out and flown to Moscow after the war to meet the great Stalin because the dictator had read a scientific paper about hibernation. This planted the seed in Stalin’s mind that he might not die but be preserved alive. Zhelikov listened to Stalin’s musings and realised they were his passport out of the labour camp, and so nodded wisely, and agreed to set up a research base to bring suspended animation / hibernation/ cryogenics to the peak of perfection which would be required before they could try it on the Great Leader. Stalin rang up Beria and told him to make it so.

Zhelikov asked that the existing weather research base at Tcherny Vodi, near the labour camp of Tchersky, be greatly expanded. They’d have to dig down into the small mountain it was built on, to build multiple levels below the surface, levels for scientists, for ancillary workers, all the laboratories and so on. Stalin said, Make it so.

With the result that the best of Soviet engineering built the James Bond-style secret underground base which Raven now finds himself in, quaffing sherry amid the bookshelves, surrounded by masterpieces by Mondrian and Matisse. All quite bizarre. I didn’t know if I was meant to take this as a parody of a James Bond movie, where the mad scientist reveals his plan for world domination amid symbols of uber-wealth and corruption. All it needed was for Rogachev to be stroking a white cat. Are we meant to take it seriously?

Once the base was established Zhelikov wrote to Rogachev describing the work they were doing and inviting him to join. So he came and had been there ever since.

Now the mad scientist in the wheelchair introduces Raven to his star patient. It is an ape named Ludmilla, lying in bed in a dress, wearing lipstick and glasses and reading. She says hello to Raven. Raven says hello to Ludmilla. The reader wonders if he is hallucinating.

Rogachev explains that the research program to breed intelligent apes made great advances but suffered a fatal flaw: they found they could produce either intelligent apes, or hardy apes, but never the two together. They had been exploring all aspects of the problem including brain circuitry. The discovery of the pregnant neolithic woman and her foetus led to a breakthrough, but not the one they were expecting.

By a series of accidents the research stumbled across discoveries to do with eyesight. Davidson goes into mind-numbing but incomprehensible detail as Rogachev describes the step-by-step progress made, first with rats, then with experimental apes, by which they blinded the subjects – but then used a ‘harmonic wave’ which they had accidentally stumbled across, and which turned out to ‘restore eyesight’ (explained from page 315 onwards).

This ‘harmonic wave’ had several practical applications and Rogachev shows Raven one of them. Turns out Ludmilla the talking ape had been badly injured in the explosion at the research lab which had been detected by American satellites all those months earlier. Her eyes had been damaged and infected (the explosion released some kind of contamination, we aren’t told what).

The point is that Russian grasp of this harmonic wave technology is so advanced that they were able to build a) glasses which convert light into digital information which is then b) transported along wires in the wings of the glasses to electrical contacts which c) interact with contacts embedded behind the subjects’ ears, contacts which they have wired up to the optical regions of the subject’s brain so that d) the blind can see through their glasses!

All this is taking us a long, long way from the initial idea of ape-men and H.G. Wells. Now we are curing the blind. But even this turns out not to be the secret at the book’s core.

Because tests of the harmonic band wave had another unforeseen consequence: it completely disrupts the electrical signals which are used to direct guided and intercontinental missiles. By accident, the base has stumbled over a perfect defence system against all kinds of missile attack!

Rogachev now hands Raven two of the shiny square plates which we used to call computer floppy disks, back in the early 90s (p.326). These floppy disks contain all the information needed to recreate the Russian experiments and build harmonic wave machines and so develop their own anti-missile defences. But they must be opened in laboratory conditions, at lower than 240 degrees below freezing, or they will self-destruct.

I will die soon, Rogachev says (he, too, was infected in the explosion and fire). These will be my legacy. Goodbye. And he turns and whirs out of the room in his wheelchair. Raven goes back to the main door and a few minutes later Stepan opens it and lets him out, they retrace their steps to the Evenk dormitory and smuggle him in. In the morning Raven tells the Evenk that the grateful father has given him a letter and a ring to hand on to his beloved daughter. the Evenk think he is a hero and grin at their own involvement in the kind-hearted plot. A few days later Dr Komarova returns for more medical treatment and Raven is again swapped for the Evenk driver, this time the other way round, the Evenk returning to the dormitory, Raven reverting to his role as driver, driving Dr Komarova out of the complex and away, back to Tchersky. Mission accomplished. Well, first part anyway.

Complications

Unfortunately, there are two complications. One, at a literally very high level, is that the Chinese launch two test rockets during this period, designed to fly the length of China. Both fail due to direction mechanism failure. Davidson takes us into the nitty gritty of the designs and the failures but the upshot is they’re being interfered with by Russian satellites which hover in fixed position way up over the Asian landmass. Is this going to become important? Are the Chinese going to interfere in the story somewhere?

Closer to home, the drug dealer Ponomarenko, unhappy by the rainy Black Sea, hears on the radio that the state is announcing an amnesty for drug dealers. He checks with a lawyer and the cops and then comes forward to report that he has been blackmailed into lending his flat in Tchersky to some dodgy operators, who also wanted to know all about his friend Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan.

The Black sea cops contact the small police office in Tchersky. They put out a warrant for Kolya/Raven. Dr Komorova hears about it in her capacity as a senior government official in the region. She warns Raven. One escape plan had been for Raven to fly out of the region. Or maybe take another ship. Both now impossible with the authorities checking all papers. Good job he had made a back-up plan.

The bobik

The whole Siberian section of the story has taken several months, during which Raven has wormed his way into the good books of the Tchersky Transport Company, undertaking long distance and countless short distance drives for them. The ‘plan’ had made provision for ‘extracting’ him from the location once the mission was accomplished. But Raven is stroppy and contrary by nature and had begun to make an independent escape plan. Just as well.

This plan is to a) cosy up to the chief engineer at the Tchersky Transport Company and b) persuade him to let him have all the component which make up a bobik light truck so he can build one himself from scratch.

On one of his many delivery trips around the region Raven has discovered a big cave, hidden by frozen bushes, big enough to turn into a workshop where he can secure a block and tackle to the ceiling, instal lamps around the place, store food, a sleeping bag and blankets – and then, slowly steadily, week after week, persuade the head engineer at Tchersky, to let him have more and more pieces of bobik and drop them off at the cave, and build a truck from scratch, by himself!

Implausible doesn’t seem an adequate word to describe how wildly improbable and unnecessary I found this. Why not just pile Dr Pomarova and a load of food into one of the existing bobiks he gets to use perfectly legally, set off on a long, perfectly legal trip, and just keep going? No. In Davidson’s story, he has to build his own!

The Tchersky militia led by Major Militsky become more officious and search every house. Raven hides in Dr Komarova’s cellar. Then she drives him out to the cave with food and he does back-breaking work constructing the bobik. She is due to come next night at midnight. Is hours late. He goes out to watch. Tension, stress.

She turns up with food and the battery, the last component needed to complete the bobik, and news that the hunt is getting serious. In fact it has become a region-wide hunt and a general from Irkutsk has flown in to take charge of it. Pomorova tells Raven how much she loves him. Oh darling. Oh sweet man. Yes, yes, says Raven, but realises that she is the only official allowed into Tcherny Vodi. They will interrogate her. They go over her story, trying to plant red herrings. Then kiss goodbye. ‘I will see you again, won’t I, my love?’ She asks. ‘Of course,’ he replies, lying.

She leaves. He tries to sleep. He can’t. He gets up and starts the bobik and inches out onto the frozen river. Half an hour later a military patrol passes by. He has got out just in time.

Raven on the run

Raven drives east. On the map there is a tributary of the main river-highroad which the map says is impassible. It is certainly strewn with rocks embedded in the ice, but he drives slowly and carefully and the bobik is designed to be indestructible. After several hours Raven comes to a hump-backed bridge which carries the highway from Tchersky to Bilibino (p.377). At a succession of Road Stations, Raven cruises in silently with his lights doused, parks and siphons petrol from the tanks of other bobiks in the car parks, the drivers tucked up inside the warm lodges. Not weather to be outside. He is heading east into a big range of mountains known as the Kolymsky Heights. Aha.

In parallel, a security forces general flies into Tchersky from Irkutsk and takes charge of the search. Having interrogated Ponomarenko, he realises this is a sophisticated spying project mounted by foreign powers. He realises the agent will have left the area. He orders all transport within a 500 mile radius to be frozen and checked.

Basically these last 100 pages turn into quite a nailbiting chase, Raven a clever resourceful fugitive, pitted against the General who is also a very intelligent and thorough investigator. While Raven drives East in a bobik the General is misled by several false clues into telling his forces to search to the south for a missing rubbish truck. But when that avenue runs dry, follows other clues, until he is right on the tail of our man.

The cold calculation of the fugitive, and the clever deductions of the general (I don’t think we’re ever given his name) reminded me strongly of the similar set-up in Frederick Forsyth’s classic thriller The Day of the Jackal. A chase.

Raven drives on on on through the snow, hiding under bridges for snatched sleep, surviving on bread and salami, driving over a thousand kilometers, with a number of close shaves, and just squeezing past security barriers along the way, until he arrives at a tiny settlement named Baranikha which has an airport sure enough, but no flights in our out due to a fierce blizzard.

Raven hooks up with a drunk Inuit who he lets drink all his vodka till he passes out, whereupon Raven takes his coat and boots and backpack and skis and identity papers and hustles himself onto the first plane which is now leaving the airport as the snow lifts, to a tiny place out east, towards the Bering Strait, named Mitlakino.

Here he signs in with a jostling noisy scrum of other workers but in the dead of night retrieves his papers, backpack and steals a snowplough. The geography now becomes crucial. Baranikha and Mitlakino are way out at the easternmost tip of Siberia, on the blocky peninsula which sticks out into the Bering Strait and faces on to Alaska. Raven hadn’t planned it this way, it was pure fluke that the only plane flying from the airport was heading here. But now he’s here he conceives the plan of crossing the Bering Strait from the Russian side to the American side, and freedom. (Although Davidson nowhere explicitly explains this, the reader eventually deduces that at this time of year – the winter solstice – the Bering Strait is completely frozen over. Since it is only 50 miles wide, a man could walk it, admittedly hampered by the fog, snow and frequent blizzards.)

To cut a long story short, the security general has caught up with Raven’s trail, they’ve found the drunk Inuit at the airport as he sobers up and complains that someone’s stolen his papers, they’ve followed the trail to the workers dormitory at Mitlakino, the general yells down the phone to the dopy head of the Mitlakino settlement who does a search and discovers a snowplough is missing. They deduce Raven must be heading to the coast and the general dispatches helicopters from a nearby military base.

The border between America and Russia runs down the middle of the Bering Strait. There are two islands there, the Greater Diomede Island is on the Russian side of the sea border, the Lesser Diomede Island is on the American side.

Raven drives his snowplough through a blizzard along the coast till he gets to a settlement called Veyemik. He hides the plough and knocks on the door of the biggest house, waking the headman of the local tribe of native peoples, Inuit. Here he pretends to be an Inuit on the run from the authorities. The people take him in. Next morning they all go out fishing to iceholes they cut in the deep frost covering the sea. Raven asks to go with them. They take him in a motorised ski-bus out to the hole where the Inuits split up to fish different holes. Raven has asked a series of questions establishing that they are almost within sight of Greater Diomede Island. He slips away from the Indians and sets out on skis.

But there is unusual helicopter activity overhead. The general has figured out where he is, and even has men at Veyemik interrogating the inhabitants, and now knows the fugitive is out on the ice. The general mobilises the defence forces on Greater Diomede who turn out in ski busses, little ski scooters and on skis. Plus the helicopters overhead.

After some complicated hide and seek, during which Raven, in the ongoing blizzard fog, isolates and knocks out a security soldier and steals all his equipment, he eventually realises the general has created a solid wall of trucks and soldiers with headlights and torches on, 250m from the border. Raven climbs up a cliff on the eastern side of Greater Diomede and hides in a cave, but then a helicopter flies slowly low along the cliff, guiding a truck of soldiers which uses a mortar to fire gas mortars into every cave. Raven tucks himself back against the wall but the mortar which shoots into his cave bounces on to his chest and explodes leaving him deaf and half blind. Only a little later do we discover it blew out one of his eyes.

Half-blinded he crawls to the cave entrance and shoots down the militia in the jeep, then half climbs half falls to the ground, crawls to the jeep, and half drives it. The chase becomes horrible now, as the militia close in and shoot out the tyres and lob mortars at the engine (the general has shouted down the phone to the local commander that the fugitive must be taken alive). A mortar detonates on the bonnet which blows shards of metal into Raven’s body. He cannot hear and barely drive or think. The wrecked jeep slews in circles but…

Once again and for the final time I was confused by Davidson’s elliptical descriptions and by the way he intrudes into this vivid description, parallel accounts of the aftermath and what the Russian authorities discovered in the cave and along Raven’s trail. All of this fooled me into thinking he made it just to the edge of the international border but was captured by the Russkies.

Which turns out to be wrong. The first the reader realises of this is when we are told that Raven is being rushed to hospital in Anchorage. I.e., although it is nowhere explicitly stated that he crossed the border, and there is no description of anything the American troops did on their side or how his body was recovered or anything – next we know we have entered a different type of register as the book becomes like an official record of events, describing at high-level the transport of the body. Then we are told that Raven’s severely injured body packs up and he dies. Lost one eye, blinded in the other, shot through one knee, chest cluttered with shrapnel, lost one lung, it packs up and Raven dies. His funeral is attended by officials from Russia, who apologise for this sorry incident and for how a confused native must have wandered by accident into a military exercise. And who, naturally, make a note of everyone who attends the funeral.

Which is why none of the CIA officials attend, obviously. In fact no-one attends except the mortician and coroner.

But another reason no-one attends is that Raven isn’t dead. Davidson’s last trick in this very tricksy narrative is the not-altogether-unexpected revelation that the agency spirited the heavily-wounded Raven away to a super-advanced hospital, and swapped his boy with that of an unknown vagrant who had been – very conveniently – run over and trashed. That’s the heavily-bandaged body which is placed in a coffin and whose funeral the Russkies attend and who is cremated.

Meanwhile, Raven recuperates, given the best medical treatment the agency can provide.

And, in the final pages, there is the ring. You may recall that Rogachev gave Raven a ring, supposedly a blessing to his ‘daughter’, part of the cover story which got Raven into the compound. The ring was in fact Rogachev’s weeding ring which, knowing he is soon to die, he gives to Rogachev. Inside is engraved the motto As our love the circle has no end. After he’d been extracted from the base, among many other things Raven showed the ring to Dr Komarova, who has fallen deeply in love with him. Later, after he has fled the tightening net, Komarova goes to check out the cave where Raven had built the bobik. He has very professionally completely emptied it of every trace of his presence (loading it into the bobik and disposing of most of it in faraway ravines on his escape drive east). But she finds a small scrap of paper scrunged up. Inside is the ring with its motto.

Now, on the last page of the book, Dr Komarova has quit her job in Kolymsk and moved west to Petersburg (despite a shrewd interrogation by the general, she managed to throw the investigators off her trail and survived the whole episode without reproach). And three months later she receives a letter, containing an open-ended air ticket to Montreal, an immigration department slip bearing her correct name and passport number. And tucked away at the bottom of the envelope a tiny slip of cigarette paper bearing a single line of writing: As our love the circle has no end.

As love stories go, it has to be one of the weirdest I’ve ever read, but then the entire novel is meticulously detailed, powerfully atmospheric, often completely preposterous, sometimes incomprehensible but despite everything, exerted a very powerful tug on my imagination and memory.


Maps

There are four maps in the novel (more than you sometimes get in history books). Good quality ones, too, showing

  1. the whole of northern Asia (pp.32-33)
  2. the coast of British Columbia, where Lazenby and the CIA man go to find Raven (p.76)
  3. Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait region (p.158)
  4. the Kolymsky Region (p.417)

But there is the same sense of oddity or something wrong about these as theres is over the whole book. Very simply, the two latter maps should be reversed.

The central section of the novel is set in the Kolymsky region, so the detailed map of the area – which shows Cape Green where the ship docks, Tchersky where the doctor lives and Raven gets his job on the lorries, the location of the research centre and even of the cave he discovers and uses to build his bobik – quite obviously this map should go at the beginning of that section instead of where it is actually positioned, well after that whole section has finished (?)

Whereas it is only on page 410 that we first hear of the small settlement of Mitlakino and Raven decides to take the plane there. At which point the precise geography of the area becomes vital to his plans for escape, and for the final nailbiting descriptions of his escape across the ice – and so this is where the map of Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait should go – not 250 pages earlier, where it was completely irrelevant and didn’t register as important. It wasn’t important, yet.

Is this an editorial mistake, a mistake in the printing of the book? Or yet another subtle way of blindsiding the reader and keeping us puzzled, as the suppression of so many other key facts in the narrative succeeded in puzzling me all the way through.

Style

Flat descriptions Although the book is set in some dazzling and awe-inspiring landscapes (the seascapes and frozen landscapes of Siberia) Davidson is not that at descriptions. He gives the facts, but they rarely come to life. Here’s an example of his prose.

He got up and walked about the room. In a recess beside the stove an icon was on the wall. The stove was cold, the house now electrically heated, very stuffy, very warm. Books were everywhere, on shelves, tables. He couldn’t make out the titles in the dark. (p.243)

You can see the bit of effort Davidson has made to create something more than flat factual description in the use of the verbless phrases ‘very stuffy, very warm’. Not very inspiring, though, is it?

Martin Cruz Smith’s sequel to Gorky ParkPolar Star, finds his Moscow detective, Arkady Renko way off his beat, working on a factory ship in the Bering Sea. It’s the same location as the coastal scenes of Kolymsky Heights, at about the same time (Polar Star 1989, Kolymsky Heights 1994). Smith’s book is sensationally vivid in description and atmosphere. I think it’s the best of the eight Renko novels because you can feel the icy temperature, the salt spray in your face, the harshness of frozen metal.

None of that is captured by Davidson’s prose. It is flat and functional. Eventually, by dint of repetition of the facts, you get the powerful sense of brain-numbing cold, of ice and snow and blizzards. But it is done rationally, by repetition of factual information, not by the style.

Instead of jazzy and vivid description, Davidson has a few mannerisms of his own.

Echoing One is a kind of dumb, blank repetition of events. Very often he’ll end a paragraph saying so-and-so plans to do x, y or z. And then the next paragraph begins with ‘And so-and-so did x, y, or z.’

‘I have thought how this could be managed’.
He explained how this could be managed. (p.306)

He was contacting them himself immediately.
Which, immediately, he did. (p.443)

It’s a kind of rhetorical echolalia. It doesn’t add to atmosphere or even tension. The opposite. I found it helped harden the colourless carapace of Davidson’s prose, often making it even harder to work out what was happening and, in particular, why.

I suppose, it also creates an effect of inevitability. Someone says something is going to happen. And that’s what happens. Maybe the effect is to create a subtle sense of fatefulness and predestination, to give the narrative a very slightly mythic quality.

‘Sure, Kolya. You’ll take the job – just when we get the call.’
And they got the call, and he got the job. (p.197)

It all falls into place, more as if it’s a myth or legend or fairy tale, than an ordinary sequence of contingent human events.

Phrase reversal Another tic is reversing the usual structure of an English sentence, from subject-verb-object to object-subject-verb.

His present job he greatly disliked. (p.281)

With his security chief Beria he had discussed this idea. (p.299)

This idea he suddenly found himself discussing in the most bizarre circumstances… (p.300)

The route to Anyuysk she knew, and he stayed under a blanket in the back while she drove. (p.348)

This ridiculous situation he had promptly ordered Irkutsk to deal with… (p.385)

It’s a stylistic mannerism, a not very successful attempt to jazz up Davidson’s generally flat prose.

I suppose it might be argued that playing with the word order of conventional English like this goes a little way towards mimicking the various foreign languages that are spoken in the book, and maybe creating a sense of the ‘otherness’ of Russia and the Russian-speakers who the second half is set amongst. Maybe.

Her intense nervousness she covered with an air of impatience. (p.386)

To Zirianka a long-distance helicopter was required… (p.404)

Italics In the extended account of Raven’s meeting with Innokenty and the Evenks, Davidson used an excessive amount of italics to make his points, often rather unnecessarily. This reminded me of John le Carré’s nugatory use of italics to try and make his dialogue more dramatic.

Since they started their careers at almost the same time, this made me wonder if it’s a feature of the fiction of the time: was there something about emphasis in the late 1950s, a historic idiolect from that period which lingered on in their prose styles.

If they merely hovered over his route, they would catch him now. How far, in three or four minutes, could he have gone? (p.444)

For me, the random use of italics didn’t intensify the reading experience but created a rather annoying distraction.

Gaps and absences

I read the book with a permanent sense that I kept missing key bits of information about who was going where, and why.

Unless this is simply part of Davidson’s technique: to leave key bits of information and motivation out of the novel so as to leave the reader permanently off-balance.

Possibly, a second reading of the book, knowing in advance information which is only revealed later on in the text, would help you make sense of all the hints and obliquities early on in the narrative. Maybe the pattern only fully emerges after several readings. Maybe this is why Philip Pullman is liberally quoted on the front, the back and in the short introduction he provides for the book, describing it as ‘the best thriller he’s ever read’. In the introduction he says he’s arrived at this opinion after reading the book four times. Maybe that’s the amount of effort required to see the full pattern. But certain inexplicabilities would still remain: why did Raven undertake the long sea voyage if he could just have flown to Tchersky any day of the week? And nothing can eliminate the truly bizarre scene where Raven shakes hands with an ape in a dress named Ludmilla. The final hundred pages of fast-paced chase revert to something like conventional thriller style. But shaking hands with a talking ape? I still have to shake my head to be sure I actually read that. Did someone spike my drink?


Related links

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn (2016)

My thinking about the concept of borderlands has been influenced by a growing body of literature interested in exploring the liminal spaces in which social relations, cultures and claims to sovereign authority make contact, struggle, and reshape one another. (p.525)

Executive summary

This is a long, turgid and demanding book. Plenty of times I nearly gave up reading it in disgust. If you want to find out what happened in America between about 1820 and 1865, read James McPherson’s outstanding volume, Battle Cry of Freedom. For the period from 1965 to 1910 I currently can’t recommend an alternative, but they must be out there in their hundreds.

Two types of history

There are probably countless ‘types’ of history book but, for the purposes of this review, they can be narrowed down to two types. One type provides a more or less detailed chronology of events laid out in sequence, with portraits of key players and plenty of backup information such as quotes from relevant documents – government paperwork, constitutions, manifestos, speeches, newspaper articles, diaries, letters – alongside photos, maps, graphics and diagrams explaining social or economic trends, and so on. You are bombarded with information, from which you can pick the main threads and choose the details which most inspire you.

The other type is what you could call meta-history, a type of history book which assumes that the reader is already familiar with the period under discussion – the people, dates and events – and proceeds to ask questions, propose new theories and put forward new interpretations of it.

Since this kind of book assumes that you are already familiar with the key events, people and places of the era, it won’t bother with biographical sketches, maps or photos – you know all that already – but will focus solely on laying out new ideas and interpretations.

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn is very much the second type of history. If you want to find out what happened in America between 1830 and 1910, with maps, pictures, diagrams etc – this is not the book for you. There are no maps at all. There are no pictures. There are no diagrams. Sure there’s still a lot of information, but what there mostly is, is lots of ‘reinterpretations’.

Reinterpretations

In the first paragraph of the introduction Hahn declares his intention to tell ‘a familiar story in an unfamiliar way’, and the front and back of his book are plastered with quotes from high-end journalists and fellow academics confirming that this is indeed what he has achieved – praising his achievement in ‘reconceptualising’ and ‘rethinking’ this crucial period in American history.

  • ‘a forthright challenge to old stereotypes’
  • ‘subtle and original conceptualisation’
  • ‘not a typical chronological survey of American history’
  • ‘conceptually challenging’
  • ‘breathtakingly original’
  • ‘a bold reinterpretation of the American nineteenth century’
  • ‘an ambitious rethinking of our history’

What this means in practice is spelled out in the introduction, where Hahn announces that:

  • Traditional history teaches that the United States started as a nation and turned into an empire. Hahn seeks to prove the reverse: to show that the United States inherited an imperial mindset from imperial Britain, with a weak centre only loosely ruling a far-flung collection of autonomous states, and was only slowly struggling to become ‘a nation’, until the War of the Rebellion. The war gave the ruling Republican Party unprecedented power to pass a welter of centralising legislation which for the first time made America a ‘nation’. In this respect it was comparable to Italy and Germany which only became unified nations at much the same time (the 1860s) and also as a result of wars.
  • Traditional history teaches that America was divided into a slave-free North and a slave-based South. Hahn insists that slavery was ubiquitous across the nation, with some of the fiercest anti-black violence taking place in New York, and that the principle struggle wasn’t between North and South but between the North-East and the Mississippi Valley for control of the new country and, possibly, of the entire hemisphere. A recurring thread of the first half is the way that southern slavers seriously envisaged conquering all of Mexico and Central America and the available Caribbean islands to create a vast slave-owning empire in which the ‘slave-free’ north-east would be reduced to a geographic stump.
  • Traditional history teaches that America is an exception to the rest of world history, a shining light on a hill. Recent decades have overthrown that view to show just how deeply involved America was with trade, exploration and slavery back and forth across the Atlantic (this is also the thrust of Alan Taylor’s brilliant account of early America, American Colonies). However, Hahn wants to overthrow not only American exceptionalism but even this newer, Atlantic, theory – he wants to shift the focus towards the Pacific, claiming that many key decisions of the period don’t make sense unless you realise that politicians of both free and slave states were looking for decisive control of the vast Californian coast in order to push on into Pacific trade with Asia.
  • Traditional history teaches that there was a civil war in American from 1861 to 1865. Hahn prefers to call this epic conflict ‘the War of the Rebellion’ – partly because the war was indeed prompted by the rebellion of the slave states, but also in order to place it among a whole host of other ‘rebellions’ of the period e.g. the Seminole War of the 1840s, the refusal of the Mormons to accept federal power in their state of Utah, the wish of some Texans to remain an independent state, the attempts by southern filibusters (the Yankee name for buccaneering adventurers) to invade Cuba and Nicaragua in defiance of federal law, numerous native American uprisings, and countless small rebellions by black slaves against their masters. Instead of being the era of One Big War, Hahn is trying to rethink the mid-nineteenth century as the era of almost constant ‘rebellions’, large and small, by southerners, by native Americans, by newly organising workers everywhere, by the Mormons, by women – against the federal government.
  • Traditional history teaches that capitalism spread across America from its East coast, which was deeply interconnected with the global capitalist economy pioneered by Britain. Hahn seeks to show that there were all kinds of regional resistances to this transformation – the South was committed to a slave economy which limited the growth of markets and industrialisation; the whole mid-West of the country was occupied by native Americans who had completely different values and means of production and exchange from the Europeans; much of newly-settled West preferred small local market economies, virtually barter economies, to the cash-based capitalism of the East.
  • Probably the biggest single idea in the book is that the Republican triumph in the War of the Rebellion went hand in hand with the triumph of a centralised capitalist nation-state. But the latter part of the book goes on to insist that, even after its apparent triumph, capitalism continued to face a welter of opposition from numerous sources, from the disobedience of the defeated South, from western cowboy economies, through to resistance from highly urbanised Socialist and trade union movements – ‘the United States had the most violent labour history of any society in the industrialising world’ in the 1880s and 1890s.

Put this succinctly, these are certainly interesting and stimulating ideas. If only they had been developed in an interesting and stimulating way in interesting and stimulating prose which included interesting and stimulating facts.

But too often the ‘ideas’ dominate at the expense of the evidence and the basic information. Too often Hahn argues the points in prose which is so muddy, and with snippets of information or quotes handled so unpersuasively, or in such an obviously selective, cherry-picking way, that the reader has the permanent sense of missing out on the actual history, while ploughing through the interpretation. Take the new terms he coins:

New Terms

Most people in the world refer to the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865 as the American Civil War. Hahn’s attempt to ‘reconceptualise’ it and refer to it throughout as ‘the War of the Rebellion’ has a sort of appeal, especially if you can keep in mind the cohort of other rebellions he sees as surrounding it and feeding into it. But put the book down and start talking or writing to anyone else in the world and…they will be deeply puzzled. It will require quite a lot of explanation to convey why you’re using a different name from the rest of the world… and all the while you have the strong sense that it will never catch on…

To give another example: America saw rapid economic change in the 1830s and 1840s, as scattered farmsteads and distant agricultural regions began to be connected, first by canals and, in the 1840s, by railways. Raw materials and goods could be traded further than just the local market. Eastern investors became interested in money-making possibilities. Traditionally, this period has been referred to as ‘the market revolution‘. Characteristically, Hahn prefers to give it a different name, referring throughout to ‘market intensification‘.

He does this partly because – at this late date – there is, apparently, still widespread disagreement among historians about when the American industrial revolution began: was it the 1830s or 40s or 50s? Something was definitely changing about the scale of agricultural and semi-industrial production from the 1830s onwards – Hahn is suggesting a new term designed to more accurately convey the way existing structures of production and distribution didn’t fundamentally change, but became larger in scale and more linked up. More intensified.

It’s an interesting idea but it’s quite subtle and I felt a) it requires more evidence and information to really back it up than he provides, and b) I don’t, in the end, really care that much what it’s called: I’d just like to have understood it better.

Show or Tell

You could also think of think of the two types of history book I referred to earlier as ones which show, and ones which tell. James M. McPherson’s brilliant account of the civil war shows. He gives you all the facts, and the people, and quotes extensively from a wide range of sources. There are numerous maps, especially of all the key civil war battles, there are photographs which give you a strong feel for the era, there are diagrams and above all there are really extensive quotations from letters, speeches, articles and so on, so that you can read about the issues in the words of the people who were debating and arguing them.

As a result, McPherson’s account is rich and varied and highly memorable. You remember the people and what they did and said and achieved. As you follow his intricate account of the war, complete with maps and detailed descriptions of each battle, you get a real sense of what was at stake and how contingent human affairs are.

Hahn tells

By contrast, Hahn tells you what happened, with no reference to maps, no graphs or photographs, with minimum quotations. For example, he doesn’t give a single account of a civil war battle, and certainly no maps of them. All the evidence is subsumed to the need to make his case and put forward his theories.

But the risk of writing history in such a theory-heavy way is that your account might end up being more about yourself and your theories, than about the ‘history’; that you spend ages asking academic type questions…

What was the character of American governance? On what axes did American politics turn? How far did slavery’s reach extend, and what was its relation to American economic and political growth? How did the intensifying conflict over slavery turn into civil warfare, and in what ways did civil warfare transform the country? How integral was political violence and conquest to American development? How were relations of class, race and gender constructed, and what did they contribute to the dynamics of change? When did American industrialisation commence, and how rapidly did it unfold? How should we view popular radicalism of the late nineteenth century and its relationship to Progressivism? At what point could the United States be regarded as an empire, and how was empire constituted? (p.2)

… in order to devote the rest of the book to answering them in a similarly abstract, academic kind of way.

To give an example of the triumph of theory over detail, Hahn is heavily into modern identity politics and goes out of his way to discuss the history of women and of people of colour using the latest up-to-date sociological jargon.

Thus Hahn tells us that the nineteenth century family was a ‘patriarchal institution’ ruled by the ‘patriarchal father’ or the ‘patriarchal husband’. He explains that 19th century American society was profoundly ‘gendered’ (a favourite word of his), a society in which people have defined themselves by ‘gender stereotypes’, where people carried out ‘gendered divisions of labour’, according to ‘gendered norms’ and ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’. The more aggressive leaders of the era, such as presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodor Roosevelt, are both accused of ‘masculinism’.

Similarly, Hahn loses no opportunity to tell us the big news that Southern slaveowners and their newspapers and politicians often expressed ‘racist ideas’ and ‘racist conventions’ and ‘racist stereotypes’ in ‘racist’ language.

The thing is – this is not really news. It is not that useful to be told that 19th century American society was sexist and racist. The use of the latest terminology can’t hide the fact that this is pretty obvious stuff. Not only that, but it is deeply uninformative stuff.

Instead of giving specific, useful and memorable examples of the kind of behaviour he is deploring, there tend to be pages of the same, generalising, identity politics jargon.

Part of his attempt to overturn ‘received opinion’ is to attack the notion that slaves were the passive recipients of aid and help from well-meaning white abolitionists. Wherever he can, Hahn goes out of his way to show that it was the blacks themselves who organised resistance to slave-hunters, set up communications networks, who were aware of the political implications of the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion, who organised themselves into groups to flee their southern masters and make for the Union front line then, later, after the war, continued the struggle for equality, organised themselves into networks and groups at local and regional level, and won significant political and administrative posts across the South, before, eventually, an anti-black backlash set in during the 1870s.

In a similar spirit (that marginalised people weren’t passive victims but strong independent people with their own agency who have all-too-often been written out of the story but whose voices he is now going to  bravely present) Hahn refers a number of times to women organising as much political activity as they were then allowed to do, taking on domestic and cultural responsibilities, organising a Women’s Convention in 1848, campaigning for women’s suffrage throughout the later part of the century, fighting for admission to teaching and the professions, and so on.

Well and good, and interesting, in outline – but the way Hahn tells these stories is highly generalised, draped in politically correct phraseology, rather than illuminated by specific stories or incidents which really bring them to life.

McPherson shows

By contrast, McPherson shows us these forces in action. He devotes pages to giving the names and stories of specific women who helped transform the perception of women’s abilities. These include the passages he devotes to the role of nurses during the war, and as workers in key industries depleted of men because of the draft.

I was fascinated by his description of the way that, in the pre-war period, the movement of women from being cottage industry producers to the heads of nuclear households in which the male now went out to earn a wage, represented a big step up in power and autonomy for women. Interesting, because so counter-intuitive.

McPherson shows the important role of women in the 1840s in creating a new market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century or more.

McPherson devotes a passage to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestselling novel of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I was struck by McPherson’s account of how women, in the 1830s and 40s began their dominance of the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female). The conference to launch the women’s rights movement which Hahn gives one brief mention, McPherson devotes three pages to, with accounts of the women who organised it, and the debates it held (pp. 33-36).

Later on, McPherson has a section about medicine and nursing during the war where, in a nutshell, certain strong-willed women followed the example of Florence Nightingale and set up nursing homes and went into the field as nurses. These women nurses and organisers impressed the male medical establishment, the army and the politicians so much that it made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness. Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483) and Elizabeth Blackwell who, in 1849, became the first American woman to earn an MD.

The same went for factories and agriculture, especially in the North, where women were called in to replace men drafted into the army, and permanently expanded cultural norms about what women were capable of. (pp.477-489)

All this is in the McPherson. You can see how it is all immediately more interesting, more enlightening, and more useful knowledge than any number of references to ‘gender stereotypes’, ‘gendered divisions of labour’, ‘gendered norms’, ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’.

And if you are a feminist or interested in what women did during this period, it is far more useful and empowering to be given specific names and events and stories, which you can then go and research further yourself, than bland generalisations. Being given the name and career of Mary-Anne Bickerdyke is more useful than being given another paragraph about ‘gender conventions’.

Other problems with the book

1. Poor style

Hahn’s prose style is awful. Pages go by full of anthropological and sociological jargon and utterly bereft of a single fact or name. Take this excerpt:

Although patrons expected favours and services from their office-holding clients, they had their own needs as well. Their power and prestige were enhanced by – often required – collections of followers who could offer loyalty, votes, skills, and readiness to intimidate foes, but all this came at the price of the rewards patrons had to make available: protection, work, credit, loans, assistance in times of trouble. (p.63)

Of what organised society is this not true? It could be describing power relations in ancient Rome, or Shogun Japan, or among the Aztecs.

Orotund Hahn’s core style is orotund American academese which combines:

  • preferring pompous to simple words
  • clichés
  • identity politics jargon

Pompous locutions Favourite words include ‘deem’ instead of ‘think’, and ‘avail’ instead of ‘take advantage of’ or just ‘use’. Hahn is particularly fond of ‘contested spaces’: America in the 19th century was thronged with ‘contested spaces’ and ‘contested narratives’ and ‘contested meanings’. All sorts of social forces ‘roil’ or are ‘roiled’. When he quotes speeches the speakers are always said to ‘intone’ the words. People never do something as a result of an event or development; he always say ‘thereby’ some great change took place.

Hahn has a habit of starting a sentence, then having second thoughts and inserting a long parenthesis before going on to finish the sentence – often combining two contradictory thoughts or ideas in one sentence, which forces you to stop and mentally disentangle them.

Cliché Given his bang up-to-date usage of latest PC jargon, it is a surprise that Hahn combines this with a fondness for really crass clichés. For example, early on tells us that General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna initially supported the setting up of a monarchy in Mexico, then:

in a veritable flash, he sided with the liberals and constitutionalists

‘In a veritable flash’. a) That’s not very impressive English and b) it’s rather poor as historical explanation. Instead of serious analysis of Santa Anna’s motives for this (apparently sudden) change of mind, he is treated like a character in a fairy story. Hahn’s sense of human psychology is often disappointingly shallow. On the same page we are told that:

Santa Anna was haughty, temperamental, and guided chiefly by personal ambitions for power and adulation.

A political leader guided by a personal ambition for power. Fancy that. On page 24:

Napoleon, in his audacity, planned to reverse the wheels of history.

On page 29, President Andrew Jackson (who served for two terms, 1829 to 1837, and I think is seen as a bogeyman by liberals because he aggressively opened up the West to expansion by the slave states and capitalists, though it’s difficult to tell from Hahn’s book) is quoted in order to demonstrate the amorality of his expansionist vision:

‘I assure you,’ he boasted to the secretary of war, his imperial hunger not yet satisfied, ‘Cuba will be ours in a day.’

‘His imperial hunger not yet satisfied’. He sounds like a character in a fairy tale. Instead of stopping to convincingly explain to the reader why Jackson was such a Bad Bad Wolf, Hahn writes sentences like this about him:

In 1828, in an election that empowered white settlers west of the Appalachians and especially in the South, Andrew Jackson won the presidency, and the bell of doom began to toll.

Ah, ‘the bell of doom’. That well-known tool of historical analysis. What is he talking about?

The spread of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s prompted pro-slavery counter-attacks on black churches or schools:

as the fires of hatred were fanned to a searing heat. (p.61)

Ah, the fires of hatred. Half a dozen times ‘the writing is on the wall’ for this or that person or movement. Indians, or blacks, or women, or strikers ‘throw themselves into the fight against’ the army or Southern racism or the patriarchy or capitalism. Oppositions ‘dig in their heels’ against governments.

Wrong usage Not only does he use surprisingly banal clichés, but Hahn is continually verging in the edge of ‘malapropism’, defined as: ‘the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect’. Here is a paragraph of Hahn which seems to me to combine cliché with phrases where he’s using words with slightly the wrong meaning.

Nearly one quarter of Santa Anna’s troops fell at the Alamo… and the slaughters he authorised there and at Goliad touched a raw nerve of vengeance among those left to keep the Texas rebellion alive. Believing that he verged on total victory, Santa Anna planned a multi-pronged attack on Houston and divided his army to carry it out. But the winds of fortune (in this case a captured courier) enabled Houston to learn of Santa Anna’s moves… (p.41)

‘He verged on total victory’ – can a person verge on anything? I thought only nouns could ‘verge on’ something, like the example given in an online dictionary: ‘a country on the verge of destruction’. Maybe this is correct American usage, but it sounds to me like an example of malapropism, something which sounds almost correct but is somehow, subtly, comically, wrong.

Elsewhere I was brought up short when I read that:

The militant posture on the Oregon question helped the democrats and their candidate, James P. Polk from Tennessee… eke out a tight election. (p.122)

The dictionary definition of ‘eke out’ is ‘to make (a living) or support (existence) laboriously’. Can it be applied to narrowly winning an election?

As for ‘the winds of fortune’ in the Santa Anna paragraph, that is just an awful cliché, isn’t it? Surely any historian – any writer – who uses phrases like ‘the winds of fortune’ or ‘the wheels of history’ or ‘the bell of doom’ or ‘the fires of hatred’ to explain anything, can’t be taken completely seriously.

2. Glossing over key events

Whereas McPherson dedicates a section of his book to a particular event, explains what led up to it, explains who the people were, gives extensive quotes explaining what they thought or planned to do, and then gives thorough descriptions of what happened – Hahn more often than not asks a sociological or anthropological question and then answers his own question at great length, only incorporating the subset of facts, events, people or quotes which suit his argument.

With the result that the book gives a very strong feeling that is it skipping over and omitting whole chunks of history because they don’t suit his agenda.

To give an example, early on in the book there are a couple of fleeting references to ‘the Alamo’. They come in the context of his discussion of the independence of Texas. Texas was initially a vast state or department of Mexico: the Mexicans invited or allowed American settlers to settle bits of it. Eventually these settlers decided they wanted to declare it a white American state. They were strongly encouraged by slave plantation owners in the Deep South who hoped they could export slavery to Texas.

Now this aim was itself only part of the wider ‘imperial’ aims of Southern slave owners who, in the 1830s and 1840s, envisioned creating a vast slave empire which stretched through Texas to the whole of California in the West, which would reach out to conquer Cuba for America, and which also would take control of some, or all, of Central America.

In this context, some notable American cowboys and adventurers took control of the Alamo and, when a Mexican army surrounded it, insisted on holding out till it was finally taken and everyone killed. From a macro perspective it was just one of the numerous clashes between American rebels and Mexican army from the period.

The point of explaining all this is that I know that The Alamo is part of American frontier legend. I know there’s an expression: ‘Remember the Alamo!’ I know a big Hollywood movie was made about it starring John Wayne. I hoped that, by reading this book, I would discover just why it’s so important in American folk mythology, what happened, who Jim Boone and the other ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were, and so on. I’m perfectly prepared to have the whole Hollywood ‘myth’ of the Alamo debunked, and to learn all kinds of squalid or disillusioning things about it, but I wanted to know more.

Not in this book I didn’t. I didn’t even get the debunking option. Instead Hahn more or less ignores ‘the Alamo’ because his focus in that particular chapter is on ‘reconceptualising’ that part of American history in terms of his broad meta-theme – the imperial fantasies of the southern slave-owners.

To find out more about the Alamo, I had to look it up online. Just like I ended up googling ‘the Comancheria’, ‘the Indian Wars’, the ‘robber barons’ and ‘Reconstruction’.

The entire era from the 1870s to about 1900 in America is often referred to as ‘the Gilded Age’ (because really rich Americans began to ape the houses and lifestyles of aristocratic Europe) but Hahn uses this phrase only once, in passing, only at the very end of the book, and doesn’t explain it. So once again I had to go off to the internet to really learn about the period.

Reading the book for information is an intensely frustrating experience.

3. No maps

The history of the United States in the 19th century is the story of its relentless geographical expansion – westwards across the continent, taking whatever territory it could by force, seizing Florida from Spain, seizing Texas and California from Mexico (in the 1846 Mexico War), doing its damnedest to conquer Canada but being held at bay by the British (in the war of 1812) – attempting to conquer islands in the Caribbean such as Cuba (in the 1850s), and stretching the long arm of its empire across the Pacific to seize little Hawaii in the 1870s, even creating a short-lived American regime in Nicaragua (in 1856-7).

To understand any of this at all – to see what was at stake, where places were, the route of invasions, the site of battles and so on – you need maps, lots of maps, but – THIS BOOK HAS NO MAPS.

Whoever took the decision not to commission clear, relevant, modern maps deeply damaged the usefulness of this book. In just the first fifty pages, Hahn describes the extent of Commanche land, the shape of 1830s Mexico, discusses the status of East and West Florida, describes the debates about the precise territory included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, follows the march of Mexican General Santa Anna to locations in East Texas. WITH NO MAPS.

So, in order to understand any of these discussions, and any of the hundreds of discussions of geographical issues, places, conflicts packed throughout the book – you need to have an Atlas handy or, better still, read the book with a laptop or tablet next to you, so you can Google the maps of where he’s talking about.

In fact, on page 33 I discovered that the book does contain maps, but that they are poor-quality reproductions of contemporary nineteenth-century maps which are, for all intents and purposes, impossible to read. Take this example, ‘A Map of North America by Palairet’, which doesn’t even give you a date. The print is so tiny you can’t make out a single place name except ATLANTIC OCEAN.

Map of North America by J. Palairet

Map of North America by J. Palairet

I’m not often moved to get on a high horse about anything, but this is disgraceful. This volume is part of Penguin’s multi-volume history of the United States. It was published in 2016. It’s meant at some level to be a definitive history of the period. The decision not to commission a single clear modern map, and not to use any contemporary photographs, or diagrams or graphs, is inexcusable.

Here’s another example, Bacon’s Military Map of America from 1862, showing America’s ports and fortifications. Can you read any of the place names? No. Can you see any of the ports and fortifications? No. Is this map of any use whatsoever? No. It’s a token gesture, and almost an insulting one at that.

Bacon's Military Map of America, 1862

Bacon’s Military Map of America, 1862

Part two 1865-1910

I’ve read several accounts of the civil war but know next to nothing about the period which followed it. That’s why I bought this book and I certainly learned a lot, though all the time having to struggle through a) Hahn’s unfriendly prose style b) with the constant feeling that I wasn’t being told the full story of events but only what Hahn wanted to tell me in order to make his points with and c) without any maps, diagrams of photographs to refer to.

The key points of the period which I took away are:

  • The administrative centralisation begun during the War of the Rebellion continued at accelerating pace for the rest of the century and into the 20th century, though not without all kinds of opposition.
  • ‘Reconstruction’ is the name given to the period immediately following the War of the Rebellion, when the North tried to rebuild the South in its own image. Abraham Lincoln was shot on 15 April 1865. He was succeeded by vice-president Andrew Johnson who, unlike Lincoln and the Republican party which had dominated the Congress and Senate during the war, was a Democrat. For a fatal year Johnson was fantastically lenient to Southern soldiers and leaders, letting them return home with their weapons, and return to their former positions of power. Congress, however, saw that the Southerners were simply reinstituting their racist rule over the blacks and so superseded Johnson, implementing a new, more military phase of Reconstruction, by sending the chief Northern generals to administer the South under what amounted to martial law. Thus there are two periods: Presidential Reconstruction 1865-67, and Congressional Reconstruction 1867 to 77.
  • Some of the colonels and generals who had risen to prominence in the War of the Rebellion were sent West to quell risings by native Indians, for example the Sioux Rebellion of 1862. There then followed about 20 years in which the U.S. government and army broke every agreement with the Indians, harried and pursued them, bribed and bullied them onto ever-shrinking ‘reservations’. Some administrators and military men openly stating that they aimed to ‘exterminate’ the Indians. (General Sheridan called for a ‘campaign of annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction’, p.379). It is ironic that Americans in the 20th century were so quick to criticise the British Empire and its colonial grip over native peoples, given that America did its damnedest to exterminate its own native peoples.
  • Describing what happened in the South from 1865 to 1910 is long and complex. But basically, there was ten years or so of Reconstruction, when the Republican government freed the slaves, gave them the vote, and tried to encourage their integration into economic life. This period ended around 1876 as the Republican Party lost its radical edge and became increasingly associated with northern capitalism. More to the point, the U.S. Army was withdrawn and the southern, racist Democrat party took over. They quickly began passing a whole raft of laws which brought about institutionalised ‘Segregation’. For example, during Reconstruction the number of black voters was huge, 80% or more of all adult black men, with the result that an astonishing number of local officials, judges and even governors were black. With the revival of the Democrats into the 1880s, all the southern states, starting with Mississippi in 1890, passed voter registration laws requiring voters to demonstrate specified levels of literacy, live in fixed abodes or even pay a small fee ($2) – with the result that voter levels fell to something like 5%! (pp.470-473).

This was one of the biggest things I learned from the book. Realising that it wasn’t slavery, or the Reconstruction period – it was this backlash during the 1870s and 1880s which instituted the Jim Crow legislation, the official segregation, the systemic impoverishment of black people, which was to last until the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.

This is quite mind-boggling, a massive stain right the way through American history. It made me rethink my attitude towards slavery: I’ve read numerous books about slavery, seen movies and TV series about slavery, stood in front of statues against slavery, visited exhibitions about slavery.

But reading these pages made me realise that slavery isn’t at all the problem; that slavery is now so distant in time as to be almost irrelevant. It was this institutional racial Segregation, instituted across the Deep South of America, and whose ideology – if not its laws – spread to the North and West, infected all of American life – which is the real issue.

It was the deliberate trapping of black people in the lowliest, poorest-paid jobs, and their systematic exclusion from voting and public life, the division of parks and public places, theatres and toilets and buses into black areas and white areas – this is the thing to understand better because, as far as I can see, it continues to this day, albeit more subtly. #BlackLivesMatter.

In a way, then, the emphasis which is still given by schools and exhibitions to slavery is misleading. Slavery was abolished 180 years ago in the British Empire and 155 years ago in America. This book made me realise that understanding the philosophy and practice of Racial Segregation is much more important and much more relevant to our ongoing problems today.

Capitalism and its enemies

What feels like the lion’s share of the last 100 pages of the book is devoted to the consolidation of capitalism, and its enemies. There are detailed passages describing the rise of the ‘corporation’, as a new legal and commercial entity, quite different from the companies and partnerships which had preceded it (pp.454-464). I didn’t understand the legal and commercial details and will need to study them elsewhere.

Hahn is at pains to describe the way successive federal administrations, although equivocal about the massive cartels and monopolies which came to prominence in the 1890s, nonetheless took them as almost natural agencies which the government could use and work through – as potential extensions of state power. By the 1890s everyone on left and right thought that these huge monopolies (of railways, gold, silver, copper, iron, steel) a) were here for good b) that the reach and effectiveness of these huge transcontinental corporations or agencies could be a model for modern government.

Behind all this is the Rise of the Nation-State, the grand theme Hahn has been tracing since the 1830s. But although the various aspects of its rise is the central development, Hahn’s focus is much more about the multitude of forces which resisted the rise of the state, criticised, questioned, critiqued it, from both left and right.

So these last hundred pages devote a lot of time to the confusing multitude of opposition parties which rose up against the, by now, time-honoured duopoly of Republicans and Democrats.

We learn about greenbackism, anti-monopolism, the Populist party, the Progressive Party, the rise of mass trade unions, the Knights of Labour and the first socialist parties – and then descend into the jungle of disagreements and bickering among working class parties – socialist, syndicalist, anarchist, gradualist, evolutionary, revolutionary.

There is a lot about the strikes – kicked off by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 – which blighted American industry in the 1880s and 1890s, all a revelation to me.

A softer, liberal version of resistance to monopoly capitalism came to be termed the Progressive movement, the idea that progressive politicians should use the levers of the state to combat alcoholism, illiteracy, corruption, infectious disease, prostitution, greed and labour exploitation (p.454). This movement laid the basis of what would later become the American welfare state (such as it is).

Some tried to bring the opposing blocs together. Liberal capitalists formed the National Civic Federation (NCF) in 1900, which brought together chosen representatives of big business and organized labour, as well as consumer advocates, in an attempt to resolve labour disputes and champion moderate reform.

The final pages describe how the whole American imperial mindset was then exported, just at the turn of the century, to Cuba and the Philippines, which America won off Spain as a result of victory in the following Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish–American War, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, and also to Hawaii which, after decades of slowly taking over, America completely annexed in 1898.

Hahn shows how the same military leaders who had crushed the Indians were now sent to impose ‘civilisation’ on the Cubans and Filipinos, and with much the same mindset.

By now we are very familiar with American racist and segregationist thinking and so are not surprised when Hahn quotes racist comments by soldiers and administrators, or the speeches of politicians back in Washington, who thought people from inferior races i.e. the multicultural populations of Cuba, the Philippines and so on – simply weren’t capable of governing themselves, and needed the steady hand and civilising influence of the white man.

By the end of this book, I really hated America.


Old for us, new to the Yanks

I can’t get over the fact that so much of this seems to be new to the book’s reviewers. Back when I was a kid in school in the 1970s, I’m sure we all knew about American slavery. I remember the stir caused by the TV series Roots when it came out in 1977, over 40 years ago. All of us knew about the American Civil War, and maybe even had confederate flags or union caps among the various cowboy and Indian and army costumes we wore when we were ten. When I was a student, a friend of mine bought me Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, the classic 1970 account of how America betrayed, bullied, and massacred its native peoples.

I’m sure all educated people knew about this history and these issues decades ago. The people around me in the Labour Party of the 1970s, the party of Tony Benn and Michael Foot, were very well aware of America’s history of imperialism, its origins in brutal slavery which it didn’t abolish until the 1860s, how it exterminated its native peoples, reached out to seize islands in the Pacific, in the Caribbean, and to dominate the nations to Central America, before going on to its long history of supporting military dictators, torture and assassination (in my youth these included the Shah of Iran, General Pinochet in Chile, General Franco in Spain, the military Junta in Greece, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and so on.)

In the 1980s I hung around the communist bookshop in Brixton which was absolutely plastered with posters about American racism and the legacy of slavery, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, protests against American imperialism and American multinational corporations and the CIA. Entrenched anti-Americanism was an absolutely basic, entry-level element of left-wing political awareness.

Yet somehow, in these books by Hahn and Alan Taylor, a lot of these things – the brutality of southern slavery, the genocide of the Indians – are presented as if they are new and seismic discoveries.

think what is happening here is that American academic history writing has finally caught up with how the rest of the world has seen America for generations – a hypocritical bully bragging about ‘liberty’ while keeping the descendants of the slaves locked up in drug-riddled ghettos, the last native Americans stuck in alcohol-soaked reservations, and propping up dictatorships around the world.

I think part of what’s going on in books like Taylor’s and Hahn’s is that, since the end of the Cold War, American academia has finally become free to portray the brutal realities of American history for what they were – and that, for American readers and students, a lot of this comes as a massive, horrifying shock. But to educated, and especially left-of-centre people throughout the rest of the world – yawn.

So if so much of the content has been so well known for so long, what was it that impressed the reviewers? I think it’s the unrelenting consistency with which he does two things:

One is the thorough-going application of a politically correct, identity-politics attitude which says right from the start that he is going to ignore a number of ‘famous’ events or movements or names (goodbye civil war, hello war of rebellion), in order to give more prominence to the role of native Americans, women and, especially, to blacks, than they have received in ‘previous’ histories.

But as I’ve commented above, very often Hahn’s widespread use of politically correct terminology like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender stereotypes’ and ‘racism’ and ‘masculinism’ in the passages where he does this, tends (paradoxically) to obscure a lot of these voices, to bury them beneath a shiny sociological jargon which removes specificity – names, places, events and even words – from many of the groups he’s supposedly championing. In this simple respect, I’ve found much older accounts to be far more enlightening.

In fact, it is possible to argue that Hahn and all the other politically correct historians who nowadays use terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender’ and ‘people of colour’ do so because these terms in fact fend off real acceptance of the blood and horror of those times. These sterile, clinical and detached terms in a way help to drain accounts of the period of their emotion and outrage. You could argue that the language of identity politics, the jargon of sociology and anthropology which recurs throughout the book, despite his explicit intention to bring uncomfortable facts and ignored voices into the light – in fact, through its sheer repetitiveness and its unspecific generalisation – works to neutralise and blunt the impact of a lot of what he’s describing.

For example, Hahn gives facts and figures and sociological explanations for the rise of slave fugitives following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But McPherson, writing thirty one years ago, and without using any jargon, tells the specific story of the slave woman who escaped with her children to the North, but was tracked down. As the slave-hunters, with their dogs and guns, beat on the door of the cabin where she was hiding, this woman cut the throats of her small children so they wouldn’t be taken back into slavery, and then tried to cut her own.

You can see which approach leaves you most stunned, horrified and angry at the unspeakable horror of slavery, and it isn’t Hahn’s.

This is because the second thing going on in the book is what really garnered the praise, and that is Hahn’s high-level, intellectual and often bloodless ‘rethinking’ and ‘reconceptualising’ of the era in the terms I outlined at the start of the review.

He is interested in suggesting to highly educated readers already familiar with most elements of the period some new ways of thinking about it. Throughout, he downplays the voices of the white politicians who (I’m guessing) dominated earlier narratives, he really downplays the War of the Rebellion (maybe because there are already tens of thousands of other accounts of it), and instead plays up the notion that the increasingly centralised American state faced a whole slew of rebellions from multiples sources, devoting his time to describing and theorising this riot of rebellions.

And so he ignores what I’m assuming is the old-fashioned type of history which celebrated the rise of American freedom and capitalism and wealth and included lots of dazzling images from the ‘Gilded Age’, and he focuses instead on the wide range of oppositions which the state (and rich monopolists) faced from women, Indians, blacks, alternative political parties, the trade unions, socialists and so on.

But I find it difficult to believe that all previous histories of this period utterly failed to mention the movement for women’s suffrage, that there aren’t hundreds of books about the Indians, and thousands about Segregation, that nobody noticed the epidemic of strikes in the 1890s, or that numerous commentators at the time (and ever since) haven’t criticised America’s interventions in Cuba and Hawaii and the Philippines as being as blatantly imperialist as the European Empires her politicians liked to piously denounce.

Maybe some of Hahn’s high-level reconceptualising is new and interesting, but to the average educated reader the actual events of this era remain unchanged and the main feature of Hahn’s book is that he doesn’t tell them as fully or as imaginatively as other versions do.

In a word

Don’t read this book unless you are already master enough of the period to appreciate Hahn’s reconceptualising of it. If you want vivid detail, maps, extensive quotes and a deep understanding of the period from 1820 to 1865, read Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson: so gripping, so packed with information and ideas, that I had to write five separate blog posts about it.

For the period after the Civil War – I have still to find a satisfactory history. Reading this book suggests I may have to track down separate books devoted to specific areas such as the Indian Wars, the Gilded Age with its labour militancy underside, segregation and its long-term consequences, and the imperial conquests at the end of the century.


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Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject, and this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘the deals, the spies, the lies, the truth’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, it gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels very much like a textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments, but is at its core an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Then again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising president Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda but which proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates from succeeding decades, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would be inevitably grow larger as the ruling capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletariat revolution inevitable and unstoppable.

  1. In direct contradiction to this, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.
  2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of very backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only ever existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and here was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened. It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief and how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist war, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with experience of the Second World War, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war.

This was a big shift. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945-49), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies, and ensured freedom from tyranny, for France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it turned into a long and dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy – thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded their states as buffers to communist expansion, which meant the dictators could get away with murder – and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection: France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This lingering respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – contradicting Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested in 1977 leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history – contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but above all space is given to the importance of Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

a) Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in all shapes and sizes and hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT)) talks.
b) Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, although Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of being seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account (and others I’ve read) he is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’ p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

a) Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter) his strategy and speeches were based on the idea that it would inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991 – it is really a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era. Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred). Thus coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

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Atomic by Jim Baggott (2009)

This is a brilliantly panoramic, thrilling and terrifying book.

The subtitle of this book is ‘The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49‘ and it delivers exactly what it says on the tin. At nearly 500 pages Atomic is a very thorough account of its subject – the race to develop a workable atomic bomb between the main warring nations of World War Two, America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia –  with the additional assets of a 22-page timeline, a 20-page list of key characters, 18 pages of notes and sources and a 6-page bibliography.

A cast of thousands

The need for a list of key characters is an indication of one of the main learnings from the book: it took a lot of people to convert theoretical physics into battlefield nuclear weapons. Every aspect of it came from theories and speculations published in numerous journals, and then from experiments devised by scores of teams of scientists working around the industrialised world, publishing results, meeting at conferences or informally, comparing and discussing and debating and trying again.

Having just read The Perfect Theory by Pedro Ferreira, a ‘biography’ of the theory of relativity, I had gotten used to the enormous number of teams and groups and institutes and university faculties involved in science – or this area of science – each containing numerous individual scientists, who collaborated and competed to devise, work through and test new theories relating to Einstein’s famous theory.

Baggott’s tale gives the same sense of a cast of hundreds of scientists – it feels like we are introduced to two or three new characters on every page, which can make it quite difficult to keep up. But whereas progress on the theory of relativity took place at a leisurely pace over the past 100 years, the opposite is true of the development of The Bomb.

This was kick-started when a research paper showing that nuclear fission of uranium might be possible was published in 1939, just as the world was on the brink of war (hence the start date for this book). From that point the story progresses at an increasing pace, dominated by a Great Fear – fear that the Nazis would develop The Bomb first and use it without any scruples to devastate Europe.

The first three parts of the book follow the way the two warring parties – the Allies and the Nazis – assembled their teams from civilian physicists, mathematicians and chemists at various institutions, bringing them together into teams which were assembled and worked with increasing franticness, as the Second World War became deeper and darker.

If the you thought the blizzard of names of theoretical and experimental physicists, mathematicians, chemists and so on in the first part was a bit confusing, this is as nothing compared to the tsunami of names of Army administrators, security chiefs, civil servants, bureaucrats and politicians who are roped in to create and administer the facilities which were established to research and build, first a nuclear reactor, then a nuclear bomb.

Baggott unfolds the story with a kind of unflinching factual pace which is extremely gripping. Each chapter is divided into sections, often only a page long, which explain contemporaneous events at research bases in Chicago, out in the desert at Los Alamos, in Britain, in German research centres, and among Stalin’s harassed scientific community. Each one of these narratives is fascinating, but intercutting them like this creates an almost filming effect of cutting from one exciting scene to another. Baggott’s prose is spare and effective, almost like good thriller writing.

The nuclear spies

And indeed the book strays into actual thriller territory because interwoven with the gripping accounts of the British, Russian, German and American scientists, and their respective military and political masters, is the story of the nuclear spies. I read Paul Simpson’s A Brief History of The Spy a few months ago and it gives good accounts of the activities of Soviet spies Klaus Fuchs, David Greengrass, Theodore Hall, as well as the Rosenbergs. But the story of their spying and the huge amounts of top secret information they handed over to the Russians is so much more intense and exciting when it is situated in the broader story of the nail-biting scientific, chemical, logistical and political races to build The Bomb.

German failure

As everyone knows, the Nazis were not able to construct a functioning bomb before they were militarily defeated in May 1945. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and the main impression from the book was the sense of vicarious horror from the thought of what they’d done if they had made a breakthrough in the final desperate months of spring 1945. London wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here.

Baggott’s account of the German bomb is fascinating in numerous ways. Basically, once the leadership were told it wouldn’t be ready in the next few years, they didn’t make it a priority. Baggott follows the end of the war with a chapter on hos most of the German nuclear scientists were flown to England and interned in a farm outside Cambridge which was bugged. Their conversations were recorded in which they were at first smugly confident that they were being detained because they were so far in advance of the Allies. Thus they were all shocked when they heard the Allies had dropped an atom bomb on Japan in August 1945. At which point they began to develop a new line, one much promoted by German historians since, which is that they could have developed a bomb if they’d wanted to, but had morals and principles and so did all they could to undermine, stall and sabotage the Nazi attempt to build an A bomb.

They were in fact ‘good Germans’ who always hated the Nazis. Baggott treats this claim with the contempt it deserves.

Summary of the science

The neutron was discovered in 1932, giving a clearer picture of what atoms are made of i.e. a nucleus with at least one proton (with a positive electric charge) balancing at least one electron (with a negative charge) in orbit around it. Heavier elements have more than one neutron and electron (always the same number) as well as an increasing number of neutrons which give weight but have no electric charge. Hence the periodic table lists the elements in order of heaviness, starting with hydrogen with one proton and going all the way to organesson, with its 118 protons. Ernest Lawrence in California invented the cyclotron, a device for smashing sub-atomic particles into nuclei to see what happened. In 1934 Enrico Fermi’s team in Italy set out to bombard the nuclei of every known element with neutrons, starting with hydrogen (1) and going through the entire periodic table.

The assumption was that, by bombarding elements with neutrons they would dislodge one or two protons in each nucleus and ‘shift’ the element down the periodic table by one or two places. When the team came to bombard one of the heaviest elements, uranium, they were amazed to discover that the process seemed to produce barium, about half the weight of uranium. The bombardment process seemed to blast uranium nuclei in half. Physics theory, influenced by Einstein, suggested that a) this breakdown would result in the release of energy b) some of the neutrons within the uranium nucleus would not be required by the barium atoms and would themselves shoot out to hit other uranium nuclei, and so on.

  • The process would create a chain reaction.
  • Although the collapse of each individual atom would release a minuscule amount of energy, the number of atoms in such a dense element suggested a theoretically amazing release of energy. If every nucleus of uranium in a 1 kilogram lump was split in half, it would release the same energy as 22,000 tons of TNT explosive.

Otto Frisch, an Austrian Jewish physicist who had fled to Niels Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen after the Nazis came to power, heard about all this from his long-time collaborator, and aunt, Lise Meitner, who was with the German team replicating Fermi’s results. He told Bohr about the discovery. Frisch named it nuclear fission.

In early 1939 papers were published in a German science journal and Nature, while Bohr himself travelled to a conference in America. In the spring of that year fission research groups sprang up around the scientific world. In America Bohr realised anomalies in the experimental results were caused by the fact that uranium comes in two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The numbers derive from the total number of neutrons and protons in an atom: U-238 has 92 protons and 146 neutrons; U-235 has three fewer neutrons. Slowly evidence emerged that it is the U-235 which breaks down. But it is much rarer than the stable U-238 and difficult to extract and purify. In March 1939 a French team summarised the evidence for nuclear chain reactions in a paper in Nature, specifying the number of particles released by disintegrated nuclei.

All the physicists involved realised that the massive release of energy implied by the experiments could theoretically be used to create an explosive device vastly more powerful than anything then existing. And so did the press. Newspaper articles began appearing about a ‘superbomb’. In April the head of physics at the German Reich Research Council assembled a group devoted to fission research, named the Uranverein, calling for the ban of all uranium exports, and for it to be stockpiled. British MP Winston Churchill asked a friend, Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, to prepare a report on the feasibility of a fission bomb. Soviet scientists replicated the results of their western colleagues but didn’t bring the issue to the attention of the authorities – yet. Three Hungarian physicists who were exiles from the Nazis in America grasped the military importance of the discoveries. They approached Einstein and persuaded him to write a warning letter to President Roosevelt, which was written in August 1939 though not delivered to the president until October. Meanwhile the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September and war in Europe began. At this point the Nazis approached the leading theoretical physicist in Germany, Werner Heisenberg, and he agreed to head the Uranverein, leading German research into an atomic bomb until the end of the war.

And so the race to build the first atomic bomb began! The major challenges were to:

  • isolate enough of the unstable isotope U-235 to sustain a chain reaction
  • to kick start the chain reaction somehow, not with the elaborate apparatus available in a lab, but with something which could be packed inside a contain (a bomb) and then triggered somehow
  • a material which could ‘damp’ the process enough so that it could be controlled in experimental conditions

From the start there was debate over the damping material, with the two strongest contenders being graphite – but it turned out to be difficult to get graphite which was pure enough – or ‘heavy water’, water produced with a heavier isotope of hydrogen, deuterium. Only one chemical plant in all of Europe produced heavy water, a fertiliser factory in Norway. The Germans invaded Norway in April 1940 and a spin-off was the ability to commandeer regular supplies from this factory. That is why the factory, and its shipments of heavy water, were targeted for the commando raid and then air raids dramatised in the war movie, The Heroes of Telemark. (Baggott gives a thorough and gripping account of the true, more complex, more terrifying story of the raids.)

Learnings

I never realised that:

  • In the end the Americans built the bomb because they were the only ones with enough resources. Although Hitler and Stalin were briefed about the potential, their scientists told them it would be three or four years before a workable bomb could be made and they both had more pressing concerns. The British had the know-how but not the money or resources. There is a kind of historical inevitability to America being the first to build a bomb.
  • But I never realised there were quite so many communist sympathisers in American society and that so many of them slipped across the line into passing information and/or secrets to the Soviets. The Manhattan Project was riddled with Soviet spies.
  • And I never knew that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man put in charge of the facilities at Los Alamos and therefore widely known as the ‘father’ of the atom bomb, was himself was such a dubious character, from the security point of view. Well-known for his left-wing sympathies, attending meetings and donating money to crypto-communist causes, he was good friends with communist party members and was approached at least once by Soviet agents to pass on information about the bomb project. No wonder elements in the Army and the FBI wanted him banned from the very project which he was in fact running.

Hiroshima

The first three parts of the book follow in considerable detail the story from the crucial discoveries on the eve of the war, and then interweaves developments in Britain, America and the USSR up until the detonation of the two A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

  • I was shocked all over again to read the idea that, on the eve of the first so-called Trinity test, the scientists weren’t completely confident that the chain reaction might not spread to the nitrogen in the atmosphere and set the air on fire.
  • I was dazzled by the casual way military planners came up with a short list of cities to hit with the bombs. The historic and (by all accounts) picturesque city of Kyoto was on the list but it was decided it would be a cultural crime to incinerate it. Also US Secretary of War Henry Stimson had gone there on his honeymoon, so it was removed from the list. Thus, in this new age, were the fates, the lives and agonising deaths, of hundreds of thousands of civilians decided.
  • I never knew they only did one test – the Trinity test – before Hiroshima. So little preparation and knowledge.

The justification for the use of the bomb has caused argument from that day to this. Some have argued that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering, though the evidence presented in Baggott’s account militates against this interpretation. My own view is based on two axioms: 1. the limits of human reason 2. a moral theory of complementarity.

Limits of reason When I was a young man I was very influenced by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Life is absurd and the absurdity is caused by the ludicrous mismatch between human claims and hopes of Reason and Justice and Freedom and all these other high-sounding words – and the chaotic shambles which people have made of the world, starting with the inability of most people to begin to live their own lives according to Reason and Logic.

People smoke too much, drink too much, eat too much, marry the wrong person, drive cars too fast, take the wrong jobs, make the wrong decisions, jump off bridges, declare war. We in the UK have just voted for Brexit and Donald Trump is about to become US President. Rational? The bigger picture is that we are destroying the earth through our pollution and wastefulness, and global warming may end up destroying our current civilisation.

Given all these obvious facts about human beings, I don’t see how anyone can accuse us of being rational and logical.

But in part this is because we evolved to live in small packs or groups or tribes, and to deal with fairly simple situations in small groups. Ever since the Neolithic revolution and the birth of agriculture led to stratified and much larger societies and set us on the path to ‘civilisation’, we have increasingly found ourselves in complex situations where there is no one obviously ‘correct’ choice or path; where the notion of a binary choice between Good and Evil breaks down. Most of the decisions I’ve taken personally and professionally aren’t covered by so-called ‘morality’ or ‘moral philosophy’, they present themselves – and I make the decisions – based purely on practical outcomes.

Complementarity Early in his account Baggott explains Niels Bohr’s insight into quantum physics, the way of ‘seeing’ fundamental particles which changed the way educated people think about ‘reality’ and won him a Nobel Prize.

In the 1920s it became clear that electrons, one of the handful of sub-atomic particles, behave like waves and like particles at the same time. In Newton’s world a thing is a thing, self-identical and consistent. In quantum physics this fixed attitude has to be abandoned because ‘reality’ just doesn’t seem to be like that. Eventually, the researchers arrived a notion of complementarity i.e. that we just have to accept that electrons could be particles and waves at the same time depending on how you chose to measure them. (I understand other elements of quantum theory also prove that particles can be in two places at the same time). Conceivably, there are other ways of measuring them which we don’t know about yet. Possibly the incompatible behaviour can be reconciled at some ‘deeper’ level of theory and understanding but, despite nearly a century of trying, nobody has come up with a grand unifying theory which does that.

Meanwhile we have to work with reality in contradictory bits and fragments, according to different theories which fit, or seem to fit, to explain, the particular phenomena under investigation: Newtonian mechanics for most ordinary scale phenomena; Einstein’s relativity at the extremes of scale, black holes and gravity where Newton’s theory breaks down; and quantum theory to explain the perplexing nature of sub-atomic ‘reality’.

In the same way I’d like to suggest that everyday human morality is itself limited in its application. In extreme situations it frays and breaks. Common or garden morality suggests there is one ‘reality’ in which readily identifiable ideas of Good and Bad always and everywhere apply. But delve only a little deeper – consider the decisions you actually have to make, in your real life – and you quickly realise that there are many situations and decisions you have to make about situations which aren’t simple, where none of the alternatives are black and white, where you have to feel your way to a solution often based in gut instinct.

A major part of the problem may be that you are trying to reconcile not two points of view within one system, but two or more incompatible ways of looking at the world – just like the three worldviews of theoretical physics.

The Hiroshima decision

Thus – with one part of my mind I am appalled off the scale by the thought of a hideous, searing, radioactive death appearing in the middle of your city for no reason without any warning, vaporising half the population and burning the other half to shreds, men, women and little children, the old and babies, all indiscriminately evaporated or burned alive. I am at one with John Hersey’s terrifying account, I am with CND, I am against this anti-human abomination.

But with another part of the calculating predatory brain I can assess the arguments which President Truman had to weigh up. Using the A-bomb would:

  1. End a war which had dragged on too long.
  2. Save scores of thousands of American lives, an argument bolstered as evidence mounted that the Japanese were mobilising for a fanatical defence to the death of their home islands. I didn’;t know that the invasion of the southern island of Japan was scheduled for December 1945 and the invasion of the main island and advance on Tokyo was provisionally set to start in march 1946. Given that it took the Allies a year to advance from Normandy to Berlin, this suggests a scenario where the war could have dragged on well into 1947, with the awesome destruction of the entire Japanese infrastructure through firebombing and house to house fighting as well, of course, of vast casualties, Japanese and American.
  3. As the US commander of strategic air operations against Japan, General Curtis LeMay pointed out, America had been waging a devastating campaign of firebombing against Japanese cities for months. According to one calculation some two-and-a-half million Japanese had been killed in these air attacks to date. He couldn’t see why people got so upset about the atom bombs.

Again, I was amazed at the intransigence of the Japanese military. Baggott reports the cabinet meetings attended by the Japanese Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the heads of the Army and Navy, where the latter refused to surrender even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In fact, when the Emperor finally overruled his generals and issued an order to surrender, the generals promptly launched a military coup and tried to confiscate the Emperor’s recorded message ordering the surrender before it could be broadcast. An indication of the fanaticism American troops would have faced if a traditional invasion had gone ahead.

The Cold War

And the other reason for using the bombs was to prepare for after the war, specifically to tell the Soviet Union who was boss. Roosevelt had asked Stalin to join the war on Japan and this he did in August, making a request to invade the north island (the Russians being notoriously less concerned about their own troop losses than the Allies). the book is fascinating on how Stalin ordered an invasion then three days later backed off, leaving all Japan to America. But this kind of brinkmanship and uneasiness which had appeared at Yalta became more and more the dominant issue of world politics once the war was won, and once the USSR began to put in place mini-me repressive communist regimes across Eastern Europe.

Baggott follows the story through the Berlin Airlift of 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950), while he describes the ‘second physics war’ i.e. the Russian push to build an atomic reactor and then a bomb to rival America’s. In this the Russians were hugely helped by the Allied spies who, ironically, now Soviet brutality was a bit more obvious to the world, began to have second thoughts. In fact Klaus Fuchs, the most important conduit of atomic secrets to the Russians, eventually confessed his role.

Baggott’s account in fact goes up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and it is so grippingly, thrillingly written I wished it had gone right up to the fall of the Soviet Union. Maybe he’ll write a sequel which covers the Cold War. Then again, most of the scientific innovation had been achieved and the basic principles established; now it was a question of engineering, of improving designs and outcomes. Of building bigger and better bombs and more and more of them.

The last section contains a running thread about the attempts by some of the scientists and politicians to prevent nuclear proliferation, and explains in detail why they came to nothing. The reason was the unavoidable new superpower rivalry between America and Russia, the geopolitical dynamic of mutually assured destruction which dominated the world for the next 45 years (until the fall of the USSR).

A new era in human history was inaugurated in which ‘traditional’ morality was drained of meaning. Or to put it another way (as I’ve suggested above) in which the traditional morality which just about makes sense in large complex societies, reached its limits, frayed and broke.

The nuclear era exposed the limitations of not only human morality but of human reason itself, showing that incompatible systems of values could apply to the same phenomena, in which nuclear truths could be good and evil, vital and obscene, at the same time. An era in which all attempts at rational thought about weapons of mass destruction seemed to lead only to inescapable paradox and absurdity.


Credit

Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 by Jim Baggott was published in 2009 by Icon Books. All quotes and references are to the 2015 Icon Books paperback edition.

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A Brief History of The Spy by Paul Simpson (2013)

An entertaining and eye-opening survey of the role of the spy since 1945.

The sub-title is Modern Spying from the Cold War to the War on Terror, but in fact the book reads as if it is in two distinct parts: 1. The Cold War. 2. The War on Terror, each of which has completely different rules and atmosphere.

Also it is a history of the spy, not of spying as a whole. As it progresses you begin to realise that a full and complete history of spying would itself be huge, and also just part of a wider history of ‘intelligence’ gathering in the broadest sense. This would be a vast, maybe an impossibly huge task, bringing in all kinds of electronic, remote and automatic surveillance and communications monitoring.

Simpson describes some of the most vivid instances of this kind of wire tapping and phone cable intercepting, but the focus of the book is on the stories of individual spies. He very usefully sets the stories against the main geopolitical events of the past seventy years, which are briefly described, but always to revert to the book’s core content, which is a set of 100 or so potted biographies of notable spies and summaries of their activities.

Sample spy stories

  • Igor Gouzenko, a lieutenant in Russian intelligence, defected in 1945 and implicated 21 Canadians as Russian agents, including Fred Rose, the only communist ever elected to the Canadian parliament.
  • Elizabeth Bentley, ‘the red Spy Queen’, who’d been working for the KGB since 1933, confessed to the FBI in 1945 and named 150 Americans working as Russian agents, and wrote a 107-page document detailing all aspects of Soviet spycraft and organisation in the US.
  • Georges Pâques, a key advisor to various French ministers through to the early 1960s, was a KGB agent with access to the entire NATO defence plan for Western Europe.
  • Gunvor Galtung Haavik worked at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1955 to 1977, and was a KGB agent the whole time, passing secrets to the Russians.
  • From 1953 GRU officer Pyotr Popov supplied the CIA with details of the organisation of Soviet military command, the structure of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the USSR armed forces) and with names and operations of Soviet agents in Europe, before being caught and executed by the Russians.
  • Army sergeant and part-time pimp Robert Lee Johnson tried to sell his services to the KGB several times before getting lucky and getting assigned to the Armed Forces Courier Service at Orly airport. He was able to break into the top secret vault there, photograph and send the Soviets information about cypher systems and defence plans for the US and NATO.
  • Canadian economist Hugh Hambleton worked for the Russians from inside NATO between 1957 and 1961 and provided so much material that the KGB had to provide a black van equipped with a photographic library so that it could be speedily copied and returned. He spied for over 20 years.
  • British naval clerk John Vassall worked in the Admiralty and sent the Russians thousands of classified documents covering naval policy and weapons development. He did this for five years.
  • By 1960 the KGB had three agents working in the newly-founded US National Security Agency (NSA). Two cryptologists, William Hamilton Martin and Bernon F. Mitchell defected to Moscow and gave a press conference in which they revealed the NSA was spying on all sorts of countries ‘friendly’ to the USA.
  • Staff sergeant John Dunlap was chauffeur to the chief of staff of the NSA and from 1960 onwards supplied the Soviets with instruction books, manuals, and designs for the Americans’ cipher machines, up till 1963.
  • Head of the East German HVA (the intelligence wing of the dreaded Stasi) Markus Wolff, was said to have up to three thousand agents working for him at every level of the West German state. He became well known for the honey trap whereby handsome young men seduced older female secretaries working in West German government positions. Thus Irmgard Römer who worked at the Bonn Foreign Office, was persuaded by her handsome lover, a KGB agent, to give him copies of all the top secret telegrams she handled. Leonore Sütterlein, another secretary in the Foreign Ministry, was eventually convicted of passing over 3,000 classified documents to her husband who was in fact a KGB officer. When she realised he had only married her in order to access the documents, she killed herself.

And so on and so on, the book selecting some hundred – from what it suggests could easily be thousands – of similar stories.

1. The Cold War

Three or four big themes emerge fro this litany of betrayal:

Russia versus America

Simpson’s book overwhelmingly focuses on the conflict between communist Russia and capitalist America. The text proceeds decade by decade, setting the scene of major geopolitical events – the Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, and so on – to explain the pressure of events which often motivated individual defectors and agents. For example, the KGB operatives who were disillusioned by the way the Russians crushed the ‘Prague Spring’. But the axis of battle is always between East and West.

There are sub-sections on other countries: Britain recurs, presumably because this is a British book by a British author, maybe also because we are so closely tied to the Americans thus there is a substantial section about the ‘Magnificent Five’ Cambridge spies in Britain, and brief references to the reorganisations over the period of MI5 and MI6. But of other security services with hefty histories of their own – BOSS in South Africa or Mossad in Israel – there are only fleeting references. Mostly – as with the East German Stasi or the Czech StB – they are only referenced insofar as they connect with the book’s main CIA-KGB axis.

A treachery of spies

Maybe the biggest revelation of the book is simply how many spies there have been. And how often their betrayals were on an epic scale: lots of the individuals mentioned here didn’t hand over bits and bobs to the other side, a file here or there – but spent years and years systematically copying, photographing and handing over the most sensitive, top secret material imaginable. Some needed sets of filing cabinets or even lorries to cart away the huge amounts of documents they betrayed. Others sent so much to the enemy their material was still being sifted and analysed five years later.

The sheer scale of the material these agents sold, passed on and betrayed raises two thoughts:

a) An impressive number of the traitors described here were obvious security risks: known alcoholics, unreliable, erratic, greedy or amoral materialists. As the list of traitors grows steadily longer through the post-war decades, it makes you seriously wonder about the ‘vetting’ techniques of all these so-called ‘security’ bodies. When you consider that the British traitor Kim Philby, a committed agent for the KGB, almost became head of MI6, you wonder whether the word ‘security’ actually means anything.

b) There was so much to betray. In movies the McGuffin or thing being stolen is always small and portable, nowadays just a disk or flash drive. But in reality, it consisted of hundreds, if not thousands, if not truckloads – of documents. The sheer weight of information betrayed and sold by both sides is staggering. And how can the security apparatuses on either side have survived having so much stolen and given away?

For example, the Manhattan Project which produced America’s atom bomb appears to have been riddled with Russian spies. So much so, that the Russians themselves detonated an A bomb just four years after the Americans (1949), based entirely on stolen US technology.

Looking back, did it matter that security around the bomb was so tight, when it appears to have been so comprehensively broken? As you read page after page of shocking revelations about how much has been betrayed, you begin to wonder whether anything can be kept secure.

Bureaucracy

Spying is about finding out information someone wants to keep secret. The modern industrial state generates information on a colossal scale, itself increased by many orders of magnitude by the advent of digital technology.

But even between 1945 and 1991, reading this book makes you realise that the spying, information and counter-espionage agencies were just part of vastly bigger military and political bureaucracies and organisations, themselves just part of vast nations with tens of millions of people, engaged in the enormous, multivarious tasks of creating and running the modern world. An indication of this is the six page glossary of organisation acronyms at the end of the book – ASIO, ASIS, AHV, BND, CSIS, CTC, DCI, FAPSI, FSB, GRU, HVA – and so on and so on.

The book gives the sense that there seems to be no end of projects and initiatives and reorganisations going on at any one time, and no end of alcoholics, gamblers, sex addicts or ideological fanatics ready to betray everything they know for money, love or political conviction.

2. The War on Terror

Al-Qaeda was set up at the end of Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan in 1988. It pledged itself to destroy America, kill Jews and restore Islamic purity. It funded and organised a string of attacks against US military and civilian targets throughout the 1990s, and ushered in a completely new era.

Looking back, various CIA etc experts make the point that the Cold War had rules and was played by ‘gentlemen’. Prisoners were interrogated, sent for trial and imprisoned. Periodically there would be prisoner exchanges, their spy for our spy. Both sides knew the rules and kept things more or less under control. (The Sovs routinely executed their traitors but then, so, in the 1950s, did America, for example the atom bomb spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.)

There is none of that with Islamic terrorism. They are not ‘gentlemen’. They want to die and take as many people as possible with them. It is almost impossible to infiltrate their small, loosely-organised cells. It presents an altogether different challenge.

The two most notable events in the ongoing Century of Islamic Terror were 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Simpson briskly retells the stories as colossal failures of intelligence:

9/11 There were lots of intelligence leads suggesting some kind of spectacular was about to take place against America, and even suggestions it might be done with planes acting as bombs. Some of the hijackers had been marked by intelligence services. There was just a complete failure to pull this intelligence together and to realise what it meant. Personally, I think hindsight is a great thing, everything is obvious once it’s happened. If the previous 200 pages had shown anything, it is the challenge presented by the sheer volume of intelligence information, the challenge of making sense of it all.

And there are some obvious historical parallels for the complete failure to anticipate major attacks which, in retrospect, seem obvious. For example, nobody at all expected the Great War. A lot of people were alarmed at the arms race with Germany, especially the naval arms race, but nobody expected the war to become quite the epic catastrophic it turned out.

And whereas the Second World War was a lot more expected, it still contained several stunning intelligence failures. The failure of America to anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour is something historians still debate. More intriguing is the decisive event of the war, and of the 20th century, Hitler’s decision to attack Russia. If he hadn’t, Nazi Germany might have enjoyed prolonged hegemony over occupied Europe, but even though (this book says) over 80 separate reports reached Stalin about an imminent Nazi attack, he rejected them all as Western propaganda and so the red Army was completely unprepared for Operation Barbarossa when it kicked off on 22 June 1941.

Iraq Ironically, the opposite case: there was a dearth of solid intelligence but that didn’t stop politicians, specifically George Bush encouraged by Donald Rumsfeld, from twisting what intelligence there was into ‘evidence’ that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction he was prepared to use against the West at any point.

This is such a vast subject, and such an ongoing nightmare for the Middle East, all recently raked up again by the Chilcot Report, that there’s no point trying to summarise it. Suffice to say this book gives a useful historical perspective to recent events by briskly describing previous Western invasions or attempts at regime change, including the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in 1956 (the Suez Crisis) and the American attempt to foment an armed uprising against Castro in Cuba (1961), or the successful Anglo-American overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953, or the CIA-assisted overthrow of Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973.

The debacle in Iraq didn’t stop NATO from intervening in the Libyan civil war to bomb Qaddafi’s forces in 2011, and the British Parliament from voting to approve UK involvement in air strikes on Syria in 2015.

What is a spy?

In movies and fiction a ‘spy’ is a special agent who goes on a ‘mission’ often into enemy territory, to capture a gizmo or rescue a person or – in the more grandiose fictions – to foil a plot for world domination. The real life cases given here suggest that secret service work involves either:

  • being based in your home country
    • managing networks of agents overseas
    • analysing the ‘product’ ie trying to make sense of the reams of information they send back
    • doing counter-espionage ie trying to spot and control enemy spying going on in your home country
  • being posted overseas, generally working from an embassy, or being funded by your home government
    • engaging in propaganda work of some sort or another, providing money and materiel to political parties or activists
    • actively recruiting and running agents in sensitive positions who could supply ‘us’ with useful information

John le Carré is probably the novelist most associated with emphasising the humdrum, desk-bound, essentially administrative nature of most intelligent work, with only the occasional flash of violence out in the real world.


Credit

A Brief History of The Spy by Paul Simpson was published by Robinson in 2013.

Related links

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré (2008)

Le Carré’s default prose setting is pompous, preening, self-dramatising grandiosity, heavy-handed jocosity, leaden jokes and facetious 1950s dialogue. These traits are to the fore in this novel the character of Tommy Brue, owner of Brue Frères, a private bank in Hamburg. Like other JLC leading men, Tommy is in thrall to the memory of his ‘legendary’ father, the bank’s founder, remembered via the old boy’s embarrassingly bad quotes and dimwit aperçus, which I assume we’re meant to take seriously.

‘Tommy, my son, arithmetic is the one part of our business that doesn’t lie.’ (p.27)

Really? In banking? Who knew?

‘Never trust a beautiful woman, Tommy. They’re a criminal class, the best there is.’ (p.42)

Rather than a suave banker, Brue père, like so many JLC characters, sounds like a 1950s spiv. And his lumpen, unfunny humour has, alas, rubbed off on his son.

It wasn’t bull markets, bear markets, hedge funds or derivatives. It was cock-up. It was the persistent, he would go so far as to say the permanent sound, not to put too fine an edge on it, of excrement hitting your proverbial fan. (p.30)

The text all too often presents this kind of elaborate facetiousness as howlingly funny, whereas it makes large stretches of le Carré’s later novels almost unreadable.

Another JLC technique / vice is to describe or build up a character by inventing an imaginary chorus of colleagues, fellow worker and associates to comment on him – the rumour mill, the office gossips, fans, devotees, the so-and-so-watchers – who are then made to comment and elaborate on the characters, as if they are pop stars or celebrities, topics of continual observation and amazement.

[Bachmann] cooled his heels after fathering a near-epic scandal of which only the sketchiest outlines had ever reached the gossip mill: excessive zeal, said the rumours… (p.58)

According to rumour they had given sex a try and declared it a disaster area. (p.67)

Related to the technique of making characters the centre of worlds of rumour, gossip and intrigue, is to describe characters, their qualities or rooms or possessions, as legendary, fabled and generally tremendously well-known.

The outsize mahogany bookcase that filled the whole of one wall was similarly the stuff of family legend… Had [Tommy’s father read all the books it contained?] Legend said not. (p.25)

Big Melik, as he was also known to his admiring neighbourhood… (p.1)

Edward Amadeus OBE had been a legend in his lifetime and was a legend still. (p.186)

What had happened to the rebel in her, to her fabled powers of argument and resistance so valued by her family? (p.244)

In the hands of a legendary woman researcher called Frau Zimmerman… ‘As with decoding, so with invisible transfers, the legendary Frau Zimmerman resumes in her schoolmarm’s South German. (pp.318, 320)

One of the saddest moments in his life had been standing before the bonfire in his garden in Vienna with his first wife Sue on one side of him and Georgie the other, watching the fabled Brue Frères card index go up in smoke. (p.401)

Günther Bachmann was a famous chancer and nothing was ever going to change that. (p.406)

‘A legend in his lifetime.’ Another element in the over-selling of the characters is when they or the narrator (interchangeably) use ‘our’ to refer to them – as if we’ve adopted them, as if we are all part of the same nice snug gang, as if the whole narrative is taking part among members of the sixth form of a pukka public school.

Nobody should be interested in Mr Findlay. Mr Findlay should be relegated to oblivion forthwith and forever, is what should happen to our Mr Findlay,’ she said, adopting a furious nursery-rhyme voice. (p.267)

… where Lisa and Maria, our in-house Arabists, were already sitting… (p.211)

As to our gallant president and managing director… (p.343)

… assigning his grandfather’s chair to Our Esteemed Interpreter… (p.387)

Even more minor characters, who don’t happen to be legends in their lifetimes, still often merit facetious adjectives, indicative of the knowing mockery of superior public school banter.

… followed by an hour talking to his revered solicitor in Glasgow… (p.335)

And yet another way in which the whole tone of these later novels is over the top – over-egging the characters and overselling the action – is its addiction to italics, just to ram home the vehemence of the characters’ feelings and the importance of what they’re saying.

This scattering of italics happens on every single page so that after a while you feel that you’re reading the ravings of a man with the italics version of Tourette’s Syndrome given to utterly random outbursts of inexplicable emphases.

‘I was extremely young,’ she reported, in a tone of unsparing self-diagnosis. ‘Younger than my years by far, remember. If I compare myself with modern youth, I was a total infant. I came of a poor family, and had no experience of the larger world whatever.’ (p.261)

Scores of times, on every page. Becomes very irritating.

The plot

Issa

Issa is a Chechen refugee: he has escaped from Russia to Turkey, getting beaten and tortured along the way, before being traded across Europe into Copenhagen, and then by container lorry to Hamburg where the novel is set.

Issa follows, then imposes himself on Big Melik, a Turkish weight-lifter, boxer, footballer, and his kindly mother, Leyla, who are both hoping to claim citizenship in Germany. Out of pure good Muslim kindness, they put him up and contact the refugee charity, Sanctuary North, and its attractive young refugee lawyer, Annabel Richter. Annabel visits to interview Issa, who is obscurely convinced that the British banker Tommy Brue, who runs a small private bank in Hamburg, can somehow help him.

It turns out that Issa’s father was a Russian Red Army colonel who commanded some of the forces which went on the rampage during that country’s wars with tiny Chechnya. Obviously the Russians raped and killed lots of Chechens – their standard modus operandi – but after the colonel raped Issa’s mother (aged just 15), he kept her round long enough for her to show that she was pregnant, and then to bear the colonel a baby boy.

Issa’s mother was then murdered by her own family, who infiltrated a brother into the enemy camp who killed her for shaming the family. Somehow the baby Issa survived all this and was brought back to Russia by the colonel. What I couldn’t figure out was how a baby brought up by a Red Army general turns into a fanatically devout Muslim, committed to saying his prayers five times a day, carrying a locket of the Koran on his wrist, and insisting nobody need help him because Allah will provide.

After the colonel’s death, Issa fell foul of the Russian authorities but escaped to Turkey, was again imprisoned and still bears the scars of his beatings and torture. But he was helped to escape by the colonel’s old fixer, Anatoly, ‘a fixer extraordinaire and straightener of everything’ (p.259), who gives him cash and also – crucially to the whole plot – a scrap of paper with details of the colonel’s German bank account.

The bank of Brue Frères

It is this which has brought Issa to Hamburg and prompts him to ask Annabel to find for him the banker Tommy Brue. For it was with Tommy’s legendary father that the legendary colonel made his legendary agreement. Back in the 1980s, Colonel Grigori Karpov (p.258) was recruited by British Intelligence and began passing secrets to our side. We paid him for his ‘product’, and put the money into a safe account with the discreet and obscure private bank of Brue Frères. Run by Brits. Trustworthy chaps.

So a Soviet colonel was an agent for MI6. We paid his fee into a private British bank. He had a natural child by a Chechen girl who somehow got brought up as a hyper-devout Muslim. Who has now travelled across Europe to claim his father’s fortune. OK.

Günter Bachmann

Günter Bachmann works for the Foreign Acquisitions Unit of Hamburg’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution i.e. their secret service, which is soon informed of Issa’s arrival and that he making interesting enquiries. (Right from the start it is made clear that Germany has a number of security forces which all compete with each other, squabbling and fighting for resources, with final decisions being taken by a senior committee of bureaucrats in Berlin.)

Bachmann is, of course, like so many JLC protagonists, a maverick. He is the subject of a busy ‘rumour mill’, the target of excitablee ‘gossip’, there are apparently countless Bachmann-watchers, he is a legend in the service. And so on.

In a really bizarre scene, we see Bachmann giving a speech to his staff about the history and function of German’s security services in the aftermath of 9/11. Puzzling,y, we are told he gives this speech to the staff so regularly that it has acquired a nickname: with characteristic leaden humour we are told that it is ‘inevitably’ known as Bachmann’s Cantata. Because Bachmann sounds like Bach, you see. Bach Cantata. Bachmann Cantata. Hilarious, no?

But why does he have to give the same speech at regular intervals to his staff? So frequently that it has acquired a nickname? Are they particularly forgetful secret agents?

Bachmann’s Cantata consists of him hopping from one leg to the other, mimicking the voices of idiot politicians or the press, running the length of the meeting room to pop up behind people, appearing in different parts of the room to carry on hopping and doing funny voices, as he mimics and enacts various conflicting points of view about post-9/11 security issues in Europe.

This extraordinary and bizarre scene is, I think, meant to depict Bachmann as somehow funny, a wit, a diamond geezer, a legend in his lifetime. But it actually makes him come over as a half-wit and, like so many other aspects of the novel’s style and dialogue, completely undermines its claims to seriousness.

‘Okay, we all know the bad joke: you can’t buy an Arab, but you can rent one. We couldn’t even rent one, for fuck’s sake! With a couple of noble exceptions I won’t bore you with, we had shit for live sources then. And we have shit for live sources now… Oh sure, we had any number of gallant German journalists and businessmen on our payroll.. But they’re not live sources. They’re not venal, disenchanted, radical imams, or Islamist kids halfway to the bomb belt. They’re not Osama’s sleepers, or his talent-spotters, or his couriers, or his quartermasters or paymasters, not even at fifty removes. They’re just nice dinner guests.’
He waited till the laughter had subsided. (p.71)

JLC assures us that this entire humourless rant is punctuated by howls of laughter from Bachmann’s adoring audience, as if he’s Lenny Henry Live at the Apollo. But JLC’s inability to judge what is genuinely funny and what he is merely telling us is funny, further undermines any authority the author has with us, further distances us from this peculiar, contrived text.

The majority of the later novels suffer from the further flaw that, at the key moment where there should be insightful analysis of the historical and geopolitical setting of the fiction, when you expect one or more of the less ludicrous characters to give a half-decent summary of the geopolitical issues which JLC obviously cares about so passionately – what you generally get is sweary ranting by a blustering buffoon. This novel is no exception. When I read ‘Bachmann’s Cantata’ to my son (18) he said it sounded like a talent contest in a lunatic asylum.

The general upshot is that Bachmann and his assistant Frey (now I would have laughed if she’d been called Robin) begin hatching a plan to keep tabs on Issa. Maybe they could ‘recruit’ him as a ‘source’ for the service, eyes and ears in Hamburg’s Muslim community.

Recap

To recap the characters so far: the German spymaster comes across as an imbecile, his assistant Erna Frey as a permanently sarcastic chorus, the English banker a pompous prat, the Chechen-Muslim hero as the Lost Child in a fairy tale, Big Melik a lumbering idiot, the narrator an orotund windbag.

It’s such an odd melange of contemporary setting with fairy tale plot and ludicrous characters that I shouldn’t have been surprised when the posh charity lawyer, Annabel, with wild improbability, decides to throw all her professional standards to the wind and fall in love with the skinny refugee man-child:

She must have known a moment would come – a client would come – that would cause her to abandon every professional and legal principle she had ever reluctantly embraced. (p.155)

Maybe this is meant to be serious and not as laughable as I, personally, found it.

The wider conspiracy

Meanwhile, the legendary maverick Bachmann is revealed to be even more of an idiot than he first appears, when he is paid a visit by the head of Hamburg Station, who reveals that the wider organisation has been keeping tabs on Issa for weeks, with informers at the local mosque, taped phone conversations, spotters watching his every move and so on.

In other words, the imbecile Bachmann – who works, remember, in the intelligence service – doesn’t even have a clue what’s happening in his own wider organisation. But still – very good at hopping from one leg to the other and doing funny voices to his staff who roll around the floor emitting hoots of laughter. That’s what counts.

MI6

But it’s not only Bachmann who finds himself outflanked. Brue is surprised to be visited by two dodgy Brits who identify themselves as Foreman and Lantern from the local branch of MI6. They knew his father; they know about Karpov; they’re here to question him about Issa.

Are these, finally, the reader hopes, going to be characters we can believe in? No. They are afflicted with the same facetious, lumbering style as all the other people in the book. For example, Foreman doesn’t refer to Lantern as his assistant or partner, but his ‘partner in crime’. Oh dear. The same jaunty banter that all the other characters us. Thus Lantern’s opening sentence is:

‘It’s a privilege to meet you, Tommy, and that’s a fact.’ (p.187)

Does anyone talk like that in 2016? These two jolly cards didn’t just know Tommy’s dad – they knew his ‘revered late father’ (p.191). They needed a quiet bank into which to pay the rewards to the old colonel, bless his cotton socks, which they started to do when Brue Frères was based in ‘dear old Vienna’.

‘I would have to consult my chief cashier. Lipizzaners are something of a world apart at Freres,’ he said. ‘That was how my father wished it to be.’
‘You’re telling me he did!’ Foreman exclaimed. ‘Your proverbial grave was a bloody chatterbox where E.A. was concerned! Exactly what I said to Ian here before you showed up. Didn’t I, Ian?’
‘His words, Tommy. Literally,’ said little Lantern with his pretty smile. (p.199)

They sound like they come from a starchy, British 1950s black-and-white crime movie. Much of the dialogue sounds like an Ealing comedy, with unnervingly random emphases dropped in along the way, all dished up with a liberal sprinkling of modern swearwords. Dixon of Dock Green might walk in at any moment, saying ‘Evening all, his words literally, Ian, that’s what he said to  me, and that’s a fact, me old matey.’

If Annabel – scion of a whole family of upper-class lawyers, father a judge, mother a judge and so on – falls in love with skinny, poverty-stricken wretch of the earth, Issa – then with equally gruesome inevitability, posh Tommy (unhappily married, a timid 60 year-old, but recipient of a jolly good public school education) falls hopelessly in love with lovely Annabel.

Presumably, for some readers, it is this ‘characterisation’ which lifts JLC out of the spy genre and makes his books contenders to be ‘serious fiction’. For me, though, it’s the exact opposite: Lthese grotesquely posh caricatures form the 1950s are precisely what undermines his later novels, makes them read like predictable cartoons.

Annabel’s flat

Annabel takes Issa to her flat to pack some stuff and then on to her other flat (it’s soo handy coming from a wealthy family) bought with a windfall from a recently dead relative. After all, the author has to park Issa somewhere and if he and Annabel shared the same flat that would create unwanted sexual frisson. For Issa is portrayed as so devout that he won’t touch, or even stand near, a woman.

This second hidden flat is down by the harbour and being done up by decorators. Here Issa hides out and Annabel comes to visit him daily and hear anecdotes about the different countries he’s been tortured in. She listens to him reciting heroic Chechen poetry and falls in love with him, like all wealthy civil liberties lawyers fall in love with all their poor sexist Muslim clients.

For his part, Issa confidently tells Annabel she will soon convert to Islam, at which point he will marry her and she will bear him many children. Some women dislike having the door held open for them because it’s patronising. Others appear to fall in love with beaten-up refugees who threateningly promise they will turn them into religiously indoctrinated baby machines. Each to their own.

German security intervenes

German agents visit Annabel at the refugee centre and question her hard in front of her boss, Ursula, though she’s tough enough to refuse to say where Issa is being hidden. She then goes to great lengths to get her beloved brother, Hugo the psychiatrist, to sign Issa into a private clinic in the country (her money will pay – wealthy family). But when she tells Issa this is what she’s arranged – to smuggle him out to this safe clinic – Issa refuses to go. With irritating rectitude, he tells her Allah will provide for his future. Cycling back from this last visit, she is kidnapped off the streets by German security.

Carried to a safe house, Annabel is slowly and steadily intimidated into playing along with German Intelligence, and forced to agree to their plan. It’s for his own good, they assure her. JLC describes the detail of her ‘interrogation’ in minute detail. This process, the process of how an interrogator slowly and carefully inveigles their way into the mind of the interviewee, has always been at the core of JLC’s novels, so it comes as no surprise to learn from his biography that it was in fact the function he himself performed when he worked for the security service in the 1950s.

The psychological to and fro of an interrogator trying to win over an informer, and the surprising revelations and confessions the informer can eventually be coaxed into making, obviously impress him 50 years later, and something of the fervour and precision and excitement of the experience comes over in these scenes.

Frau Ellenberger

Meanwhile, Bachmann goes and ‘interviews’ i.e. questions in depth, Tommy’s ancient secretary, Frau Ellenberger. He discovers

a) She had an affair with Tommy’s dad, although he was married – goodness, what a surprise – young impressionable secretary having an affair with much older, filthy rich employer, my word.
b) She disapproved of the Lipizzaner i.e. black, criminal accounts
c) She speaks in random italics like all the other characters in the book
d) Rather than retell the gist or summary of the conversations she’s recalling, she insists on impersonating the voices of all those involved, in wildly improbable detail, and thus comes across as nearly as much of an idiot as Bachmann, with the absurd impersonations and impressions of his legendary Cantata.

MI6 lean on Tommy

Then MI6’s man Lantern returns to visit Tommy Brue, making it clear that the service is very unhappy that Tommy wasn’t candid with them about the old colonel’s account or the presence of the colonel’s illegitimate son during their first conversation, and extra unhappy that he and Foreman had to learn about it from German security. ‘Embarrassing, old man.’

Lantern makes Tommy sign the Official Secrets Act with its various draconian clauses, accompanied by dire threats about what will happen to him, and his bank, for aiding and abetting terrorists. For everyone is now talking about Issa as if he is a certified terrorist, each of the security people accepting each others’ valuation of him as a dangerous radical, and tending to up the anti and increase their collective paranoia. Issa has even been given a codename, FELIX, and the conspiracy to incriminate and arrest him is now called Operation Felix.

Now they know where Annabel’s hidden him, Bachmann and his assistant Erna Frey set up base in the apartment below, and brief Annabel before and after every visit she makes about what to tell the boy. As in a lot of JLC novels – for example, the first hundred pages or so of Our Kind of Traitor – it becomes a question of her acting a part under the guidance of security service minders, who go on to analyse every word and inflection of every exchange she has with Issa, in mind-bogglingly minute detail. Either this is psychologically compelling – or very boring, depending on your taste.

Enter the CIA

At this point we are witness to a high-level conference of German security chiefs to discuss what they’re going to do with the man they have now all convinced themselves is a dangerous terrorist. To Bachmann’s dismay, a CIA agent he knows from his time in Beirut is also present. Mr CIA is introduced by the narrator as if by a circus ringmaster:

And sidling after Martha and so close on her heels that he could have been using her bulk for cover, none other than six-foot-something Newton, alias Newt, one-time deputy chief of operations at the US Embassy in Beirut. (p.306)

‘None other than…’ Are we meant to applaud?

Like all the other characters, Newt’s dialogue is sprinkled with random emphases and aggressive swearing.

‘Holy shit, Gunther, I last saw you stretched out in the bar of the Commodore! What the fuck are you doing in Hamburg, man!’ (p.306)

Probably designed to be a satire on a certain type of brash virile Yank, this characterisation is just tiresome.

Entrapping Dr Abdullah

At the meeting it becomes apparent that the assembled security agencies want Issa to a) cash in his legacy b) contact a certain Dr Abdullah, a pillar of the moderate Muslim community in Hamburg and organiser of many charities c) so that they can entrap Abdullah for receiving money from a ‘known terrorist’. So Issa and Abdullah are going to be entrapped.

Bachmann is assured by his bosses that he can then pick up Abdullah and take him to a safe house, there to recruit him as a uniquely well-placed source embedded in the Hamburg Muslim community. OK. He is mollified. He hardly does any hopping fro one leg to another. And hardly any funny voices.

As with all late JLC it is made very clear that the western security services are far more dangerous than any terrorists: it’s western security services who implicate innocent people, arrest them without cause, fly them round the world for torture and indefinite confinement, blackmail and intimidate anyone they feel like. They act above any laws or restraints.

In accordance with the plan, Annabel is tasked by her minders with persuading Issa to meet with Dr Abdullah (now codenamed SIGNPOST) and donate his legacy to the many good Muslim causes which Abdullah manages – while Tommy is sent to meet Abdullah in person and gently introduce him to the idea that a mystery-money-donating stranger wants to give him the biggest bequest of his career. The plummy banker and lawyer have become pawns in the wider intelligence plan. They are entrapping the two good Muslims.

At Abdullah’s institute, Tommy meets his minders and his worthy family, the daughter studying to be a doctor, the honourable and devoted son. Abdullah is a Good Man. When he is told how much he stands to gain – by now we’ve been told that Issa is set to inherit $12.5 million from his dead father’s investments – Dr Abdullah’s face lights up. Oh, all the good and noble charitable causes he will be able to endow!

Never had [Tommy] seen a more radiant picture of innocent rapture than the good doctor now. (p.346)

Still, Abdullah is no fool and Tommy has to work hard to persuade him to accept the tainted money. Abdullah is tentative and hesitant throughout the rest of the book. Issa for his part, explains to Annabel that he has some plausible ‘conditions’ before handing over all his legacy to Dr A. For a start Chechen charities must receive first tranches of the money – and he wants enough to fund his own training as a doctor so he can go back to his country and heal the sick – but the rest is Abdullah’s to dispose of as the wise and good man thinks best.

Brue had demanded of his MI6 minders a) a passport for Issa b) guarantee of no prosecution for Annabel. He meets her at the Atlantic restaurant to show them both and assure her of his good faith. He is hopelessly in love with her. She notices but can’t help. She is hopelessly in love with Issa. The reader notes with relief that there are only 50 or so pages left till the end of the book.

So Annabel goes off to collect the domineering, patriarchal Issa, still working away at converting her to the True Faith so she can start bearing his children. She persuades him – still pretty suspicious – down into the limousine which will take them to the bank. Unbeknown to the two saintly Muslims, the meeting between Abdullah and Issa at the Frères bank is incredibly staked out, with two competing factions of German security and British Intelligence taping it and watching from a van outside.

Big Melik and Leyla

We periodically revert to the characters we met right at the start of the book, the gentle giant Big Melik and his mother Leyla, the Turkish Muslims who were hoping to get German citizenship and were kind enough to take Issa into their home before introducing him to Annabel.

Half way through the book, we had seen Bachmann assure his assistant Erna that Melik and Leyla would be able to fly off to her niece’s wedding in Turkey and then return to Germany where their citizenship application would be supported. Now Bachmann embarrassedly admits that the powers-that-be above him have decreed that Melik and Leyla will be refused return to Germany on the grounds of harbouring a known ‘terrorist’, and in all likelihood imprisoned, and probably tortured, in Turkey.

Erna isn’t impressed. Bachmann’s team aren’t hooting with laughter now at his uproarious antics. His prattish ineptitude is coming home to roost.

Shocking climax

Now Bachmann is disguised as a grumpy taxi driver parked outside the bank. The plan is that Tommy will supervise the transfer of Issa’s funds down in the vault, then ring for a taxi and hey presto Bachmann will appear – fully prepared to whisk an unsuspecting Abdullah off to a safe house where he can set about interrogating him.

Over the closed circuit TV we watch Tommy take Abdullah and Issa and Annabel down into the bowels of the bank, there to open an ancient deposit box and extract the bonds which represent the colonel’s legacy and Issa’s fortune. With a few strokes of the pen the $12.5 million is legally signed over to Issa and Tommy has transferred it into an active account. He and Abdullah then pore over the list of Abdullah’s charities and systematically dispose of the fortune in batches of payments to worthy causes. Allah’s will is done.

Much shaking of hands and congratulatory laughter, as they get their coats and emerge into the gravel drive outside the bank smiling and happy. And here is Bachmann driving the taxi Brue ordered and ready to carry out his plan of whisking off Dr A to a safe house. Abdullah is at the door and about to get into the cab when — there is a screech of brakes and a huge van careers into the back of taxi, with two black Mercedes appearing out of nowhere to block it off at either end of the drive.

Out of the van leap half a dozen big men in balaclavas who seize Issa and Abdullah and throw them into the van, lock the doors and drive off. Bachmann is still dazed, having been thrown against the steering wheel, Annabel is holding the door handle of the van shrieking ‘let him go let him go’ till forced to let go herself, and the van has gone. Wow.

They were all betrayed. Bachmann’s tidy little scheme has been swamped by American heavy-handedness. He limps down the road and round the corner to where he knows his boss, Mohr, is waiting. Mohr, embarrassed, fakes receiving a call on his mobile leaving Bachmann to furiously confront six-foot-something Newt, the CIA man.

And here, on the penultimate page, le Carré lets rip, depicting the American as a brutal war-on-terror monster. (It would be interesting to hear something intelligent at this point but, as usual in these late novels, the key speeches, the vital analysis which underpins the entire plot, consists of blustering, shouting swearing.)

‘Where have you taken him?’ Bachmann asked.
‘Abdullah? Who gives a shit? Some hole in the desert, for all I know. Justice has been rendered, man. We can all go home.
He had spoken these last words in English, but Bachmann in his dazed state failed to get his mind round them.
Rendered?’ he repeated stupidly. ‘What’s rendered? What justice are you talking about?’
American justice, asshole. Whose do you think? Justice from the fucking hip, man. No-crap justice, that kind of justice! Justice with no fucking lawyers around to pervert the course. Have you never heard of extraordinary rendition? Time you Krauts had a word for it.’ (p.415)

So that’s that then. As near as we get to an explanation or analysis. ‘American justice, asshole.’

Thoughts

The Yanks are portrayed as doubly stupid: first for cruelly and unjustly ‘rendering’ two men who have been painted as totally innocent and harmless, but secondly for devastating Bachmann’s much cleverer and more practical plan to recruit Abdullah and have him work as an agent on the inside – giving us a potential lifetime of tip-offs and inside information from the heart of the Muslim community.

On another level, the Americans’ devastation of Bachmann’s plan is in effect a repudiation of the technique of slow, patient interrogation and recruitment, which we know le Carré himself carried out during his time as a security service employee, and which is at the core of so many of his books: think of the many long, patient questionings undertaken by the calm and thoughtful George Smiley. The violent abduction represents a kind of rape of everything JLC thought valuable and insightful about his own intelligence work.

(A tiny extra insult is the way that, standing in the lee of six-foot Newt as he delivers his tirade to the ‘liberal’ Kraut, Bachmann, stands the British Intelligence man, Ian Lantern, repeatedly described as ‘little’, short, and, in these final scenes, depicted as hanging round the tall, virile Yank like a lapdog, a poodle, a bully’s hanger-on. Much, one imagines, as JLC sees his pathetic country under the leadership of ‘Brother Blair’ sucking up to the bully boys of the USA.)

This final speech merely expresses more forcefully the various sarcasms and aspersions which JLC had cast on German and British security, on their supposed ‘standards’ and ‘integrity’, throughout the novel. His contempt for his old employer grows more tangible – and is expressed in fiercer terms – in each of these late novels.

There is, of course, a very strong case to make against America’s use of kidnapping and the illegal transport of prisoners, limitless imprisonment without trial and the use of terrible and illegal torture techniques. A case which is lucidly made by countless pressure groups, charities and journalists (some of which are referenced in the afterword to this book).

And, overall, in summary, the plot is a dramatisation of this kind of lawless abduction. But as well as its plot, a novel is also about its style, about its use of language. And, for me, le Carré’s laboured, heavy-handed, facetious, sarcastic and overblown tone make his later books almost unreadable. And this fatally undermines the undoubted passion and anger he feels for his ideas.

If causes were judged by the anger, passion and sarcasm they arouse, then social media would be an academy of geniuses. But they also carry weight according to the clarity and insight their proponents bring to them. And too often, alas, le Carré brings nothing but sweary bluster and schoolboy sarcasm to what are, undoubtedly, very serious issues which should concern us all.

P.S. My first pony

Early into JLC’s post-Cold War novels I began to notice that every one of them is so unwittingly posh and features such pukka upper-class characters, that they all contain a reference to the characters’ first little pony. Since I noticed this I’ve been on the lookout for each novel’s my-little-pony moment. This one comes when the privileged lawyer Annabel – the one ‘possessed of fabled powers or argument and resistance’ – is reflecting on her ‘relationship’ with Issa.

She was reminded of a pony she had once had. He was called Moritz, and Moritz was a delinquent. He was unbreakable and unrideable. Not a family in Baden-Wittemberg would have him – until Annabel heard about him and, to exert her power, overrode her parents and raised money among her schoolfriends to buy him. When Moritz was delivered, he kicked the groom, kicked a hole in his stall, and broke his way into the paddock. But next morning when Annabel in trepidation went out to him, he strolled towards her, lowered his head for the halter and became her love for ever more. (p.244)

Probably le Carré wants his books to move us with their deeply drawn characters and their passionate dramatisation of contemporary issues. But, although I am politically sympathetic to all his beliefs, I remember the books mainly for their bombastic style and the unwitting poshness of his helplessly upper-class characters.


Credit

A Most Wanted Man by John le Carré was published in 2008 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2009 Hodder paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
1962 A Murder of Quality – Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
1979 Smiley’s People – The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
1986 A Perfect Spy – Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
1989 The Russia House – Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
1993 The Night Manager – Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, climaxing with them being shot down like dogs. First part good, second part overblown.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, gives a first-person narrative of an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions who have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, who are planning to engineer a coup and impose a ‘middle of the road’ leader, ostensibly to bring ‘peace’ to Salvo’s troubled homeland. Salvo learns that the real plan is to allow the leader’s Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources and sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee, and the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious plan is itself brutally trumped by the Americans who, in the form of the CIA, betray all the characters in the book, and violently kidnap the two Muslims, taking them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor –
2013 A Delicate Truth –

The Care of Time by Eric Ambler (1981)

Even the little I knew of his history made him, by any standards that had more to them than simple endurance, a considerable survivor. He had had physical strength and plenty of courage, of course, but it had been his wits that had really counted, his wits and his ability to adapt to cultures utterly foreign to those of his youth and early manhood. It had been a remarkable performance. What I suspected, though, was that he was now a survivor for whom the care of time was becoming hard to ignore. He had started to falter. (p.137)

This was Ambler’s final novel, though he lived for another 17 years (1909-98). A fairly long (299 pages) first-person narrative told by American ghost writer Robert Halliday, who’s got wide experience co-writing books with sports stars, movie stars, politicians and so on. A postcard pops through his letterbox saying a bomb will arrive in a few days. It duly does and Halliday takes it to his local cops who bring in the FBI who confirm its provenance. The postcard was signed Karlis Zander (German for ‘pike’).

Then he gets a call from his agent in New York saying she’s been approached by an Italian publishing house who want him to fly to Italy to co-write (ie pull into shape) a book about terrorism. Meeting a representative of the publisher – McGuire – in NY, Halliday learns that there is a manuscript by noted 19th century theorist of terrorism, Sergey Nechayev. A modern-day expert wants Halliday to a) help edit the manuscript b) help write a long commentary which will link it to contemporary terrorist networks. Name of the expert – Dr Luccio – Italian for ‘pike’. Aha. A joke, of sorts.

Barely has he arrived in his hotel in Milan before he is kidnapped and driven blindfolded to the safe house containing Dr Luccio/Karlis Zander. Zander is all James-Bond-baddy suaveness, offering drinks and apologising for the roughness of his abduction. Yes, he wishes Halliday to help him write a book which will blow open the connections between various states in the Middle East and contemporary terrorism. His sidekicks, led by the lissom Simone Chihanel, escort Halliday back to his hotel.

Here he finds three men waiting, his Italian publisher, an American and a German. It emerges – to the reader’s complete surprise – that Halliday once worked for the CIA and the American was his controller. Something went wrong on a mission in Iraq where he was captured and held prisoner for eight long months. To this day he blames the controller, whom he loathes. Having vouched for his identity, the American and Italian publisher leave him with the German, Dieter Schelm, ‘a senior official in West German intelligence’ – who brings him further up to speed.

Halliday reveals he had another career, a spin-off from the writing, a short-lived career as a TV presenter, paid to use his forthright manner to harass smug politicians, but in fact he was no good at it. Somehow Zander has seen him on the box, and knows of it as well as his book writing skills.

Thus: Zander isn’t interested in having a book published, that is all a front, a fig leaf, a pretext to get Halliday to him. He sent the bomb because he knew Halliday would report it to the authorities and it would reactivate his CIA contacts -which it has certainly done: the book is a cover to get Halliday into contact with him. What he wants to do is transmit a long complex message to the CIA using Halliday as a middleman.

Zander is doing all this in such a roundabout way because a contract has been put out for his assassination, to the tune of 20 million Swiss francs. The contract has been taken up by Mukhabarat Zentrum, an Arab organisation dedicated to murder, extortion, terrorism etc, itself the rejuvenated rump of an originally PLO revenge service called Rasd, reorganised by two mafiosi from Croatia. NATO has a different name for it, Rasmuk. All this is in Schelm’s briefing.

By now we realise the narrator has a habit of keeping secrets from the reader. Only on page 95 are we told that the picture on the postcard Zander sent Halliday, warning of the advent of the bomb, was of the Hotel Mansour in Iraq, which just happens to be where Halliday was arrested by Iraqi police all those years ago.

On page 99 he tells us what Zander has to offer the West and the CIA in exchange for help escaping from the contract and getting to live happily ever after with his wife and children by previous marriages – but Halliday doesn’t tell us. It’s something to do with a ‘defence development programme’ Zander is ‘touting’ on behalf of ‘his patron’, the person they agree to call The Ruler, one of the hereditary sheikhs who rule the United Arab Emirates. Schelm and Halliday speculate that the personage paying Rasmuk to assassinate Zander probably comes from among The Ruler’s fellow sheikhs, who are embarrassed at his defence plan or his approaches to Nato.

By the end of the meeting it is agreed that the German Schelm is going to become Halliday’s new ‘control’, for an operation which will last only as long as it takes for negotiations to take place between Zander and the CIA, via Schelm. Why the proxies? Because the CIA wants to benefit from what Zander has to sell – but be able to reassure all their Gulf Arab allies they haven’t had any contact with him, no of course not, not direct contact.

That’s the first hundred pages. Tortuous enough for you?

Second hundred pages

After the long conference with Schelm, Halliday sleeps, wakes and attends a pre-arranged rendezvous with Zander’s people at Malpensa airport, where he is contacted by a fake air stewardess, taken down to a car park and whisked out to the airport boundary, where they quickly change number plates and drive to a small town on Lake Gardo, down sidestreets to a dilapidated hotel. All these precautions are to escape the pursuing team of Rasmuk assassins.

Halliday realises this is the place he was brought the night before blindfolded. Here, now considerably better informed than previously, he has a long second interview with Zander who is joined by one Jean-Pierre Vielle. A great deal more plot is revealed: one of the seven Rulers of the United Arab Emirates wants to send a message to the American government that he is ready to enter into a defensive pact, specifically to allow the building of a Nato air and military base at Abra Bay in his territory. Only a few years ago the UAE as a whole vetoed such a proposal but since then the USSR, its East German and Cuban allies have secured bases in Yemen and the Russians have invaded Afghanistan. They are feeling less secure.

The Ruler has hired Zander to be his go-between because he wants to sound the waters before making a move. Zander very cleverly selected Halliday, concocting the co-writing of a book cover story – appropiate because Halliday is now an author – but sending the bomb to activate Halliday’s old CIA contacts. Now they move to the next step, which is to arrange a meeting between NATO officials and the Ruler at the latter’s place in south Austria, a new clinic for people with lung conditions, which he is building. Again there will be an elaborate cover story picking up on one of Halliday’s former careers, namely that The Ruler is paying a pre-arranged visit there ie nothing special  and a camera crew led by former TV presenter Bob Halliday just happens to be around to interview him about his charitable work. The TV crew will be NATO and intelligence representatives. Ie the TV interview will be a front for all and anyone observing, purely to smuggle in the Nato representatives and secure a face-to-face meeting between them and the Ruler.

For the rest of the novel there is a vast amount of time and energy put into making the TV interview cover story secure. Halliday borrows some vans from a local TV company and briefs Zander’s team on how to look and behave like TV technicians. But Halliday realises that it will go better if they have a real crew with them and so gets  his German ‘control’ to find one: the only one available at very short notice is a genuine Dutch crew who are on their way back from making a documentary in Yugoslavia, led by a director named Kluvers.

Zander, Halliday, Simone and Jean-Pierre set off in several vehicles, one of them a camera van, for the long drive from Lake Garda to a village in Austria, with minor adventures and inconveniences along the way. Simone and Jean-Pierre bicker while Zander looks on amused. Halliday proves his good intentions by overcoming obstacles and planning ahead, growing in stature as the plan becomes more complicated. For supporting her in an argument with Jean-Pierre, later that night Simone slips into his darkened bedroom and into his bed. Halliday is not complaining.

Only when they arrive at a hotel near The Ruler’s planned health spa do they learn that this Arab’s plan to build a luxury compound in a pretty Alpine village has caused outrage among local press and politicians, exacerbated by his refusal to talk to the Press, thus making everything seem sinister. So when Halliday and his fake TV crew arrive and confidently announce that they’re about to interview the reclusive sheikh, instead of being a perfectly bland cover story, it prompts a news frenzy in its own right. The hotel keeper phones the local press who contact the national press and TV, prompting an influx of radio and journalists eager for the story. Oops.

While Zander and Simone go stay at the Ruler’s place, Halliday is called to a meeting with Schelm at which he is introduced to the NATO negotiator, Lieutenant-General Sir Patrick Newell, Military Deputy to Commander Nato Strike Force South. They have a long conversation over whisky during which they puzzle out the Ruler and Zander’s motives, as in a chess game, working through the various deceits, gambits and strategems each player could be playing. The analysis is provisional because we are told The Ruler is unbalanced, like his father, in fact has been diagnosed by western doctors as a paranoid schizophrenic. Great.

Back at Halliday’s Gasthaus Simone slips into his room and into his bed again. He confronts her with his theory that a) it is The Ruler himself who has put out the contract on Zander – yes, she says, they have reluctantly realised this is true b) the men who followed them on various occasions back in Italy did so half-heartedly because they were under orders to appear threatening but not do any harm, because c) The Ruler will arrange to have Zander killed immediately after the conclusion of business. This is so The Ruler can persuade his brother sheikhs that the approach came from Nato, he is humbly replying to a western initiative, he had nothing to do with arranging it. If Zander lived he would threaten that story.

Simone also admits she is Zander’s daughter and that the two younger assistants (barely named and who don’t get to speak) are Zander’s other children by a more recent marriage. Aha. Halliday’s support of Team Zander just got more personal.

Meanwhile, what is getting almost out of control complicated is this TV cover story. As well as meeting with a genuine film crew, Halliday now finds himself buttonholed by Austrian TV, ORF. Their producer, Rainer corners Halliday at the hotel, asking awkward questions, first about the obvious amateurishness of the interview arrangements, then warning him about The Ruler and his unpopularity in Austria.

With the knowledge that The Ruler intends to murder Zander as soon as the interview has taken place, and that he is now involved with Zander and probably included in the hit, Halliday begins to concoct complicated plans to exploit the presence of the ‘innocent’ TV companies:

He will use the Dutch crew to shoot a genuine interview with The Ruler. He will make two copies of the tapes in case The Ruler’s people demand the rushes. He will make sure the Dutch crew’s two bulky vans accompany him and Zander’s vans to the German border. Where he will hand over the rushes to Rainer. This latter involves assuring Rainer he has a genuine US sponsor for the interview (which requires him to phone his agent in New York and get her to phone a PBS producer friend, and ask him to pretend to be the exec producer of the project, before giving his number to Rainer to phone and check.)

Complicated.

Third hundred pages

Next day everyone drives out to the old silver mine which The Ruler is allegedly converting into a health spa/sanatorium, at present surrounded by wire fences and security guards with barking dogs. They are let in and at the museum created by a dotty antiquarian who bought the place generations ago, Halliday is reunited with Zander who prepares him for the vaunted interview.

Here Zander casually confirms something the Austrian TV producer said was common gossip: that The Ruler doesn’t want the silver mine as an unorthodox cure for his sinusitis or asthma – in fact he is planning to build an airtight bunker to sit out World War Three. Zander even explains how the mine’s natural hydraulics will keep it supplied with fresh air for up to eight months, until it is safe for The Ruler and his loved ones to re-emerge.

The TV interview Slightly dazed by this revelation, Halliday is then introduced to The Ruler’s Secretary and then on into the company of the Great Man himself. They agree to carry out the interview a hundred steps down into the bowels of the silver mine, at ‘the first level’. Why? Why is Halliday going to this much trouble? Why is The Ruler agreeing to it at all, since the whole TV interview is purely a cover for introducing the General and Schelm to The Ruler. This has already been achieved: they arrived from their hotel soon after the film crews and, immediately after Halliday’s brief introduction to the Ruler, went into conclave with him. Why not just drop the whole TV fiction, hang around till the VIPs have had their meeting, and leave?

Ambler’s later fictions often have this odd or freakish aspect, a compelling unnecessariness.

Here a lot of pages are spent describing the second crew arriving dirty from Yugoslavia and the technical difficulties of lighting and prepping a room deep underground and surrounded by water dripping off the walls, for a major interview. To add to the sense of the bizarre, when he arrives The Ruler is obviously high on something, cackling manically. More oddly still, after the scores of pages in which his assistants, Zander and Simone have all emphasised how he must treat the Ruler with vast respect, Halliday’s interview is almost rude, certainly impertinent, implying the Ruler knows nothing about the medical conditions he’s supposedly creating the clinic for.

And then, with wild improbability, Halliday takes the interview into bizarre territory by directly accusing The Ruler of planning to build a nuclear bunker. The Ruler airily dismisses this, but Halliday picks up on some of his denial to lead him into revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of germ warfare! Turns out The Ruler knows the latest research about nerve agents and antidotes, that he has personally attended experiments of nerve agents on apes, that he is more than an expert, he is an obsessive on the subject.

Finally it is over and the Ruler gets rather shakily to his feet and walks out. His Secretary, realising what a PR disaster it could be, reiterates that the whole interview is just a cover, right, and will never be used? The Dutch crew who Halliday has employed are stunned by what they’ve heard but the director, Kluver, agrees to switch the tapes – Halliday gets them to number unused film with the date and titles etc as if they were the rushes, and slips the actual rushes to his team to hide. Sure enough, at the barbed wire fence, the crew are held up by the guards while the Secretary comes running after them demanding the rushes. There is an angry standoff but, after some playacting, Halliday gives them the film – the blank film. Hah, he is smuggling out the incriminating interview which, if broadcast, will ruin The Ruler’s reputation and scupper his building plans.

Final scenes

As arranged Zander and Halliday’s vehicles drive in tight convoy formation surrounded by the Dutch crew’s bigger vehicles. And as expected the Rasmuk assassins make their appearance almost immediately, four of them in an old Citroen.

While they drive north to the German border to meet Rainer, Halliday confronts Simone: ‘How long have you and your father realised the Ruler’s price for allowing Nato to build an air base in the UAE is access to US nerve gas and permission to build facilities where it can be tested on human beings, the inmates of his many prisons?’ Now it makes sense that, before they were called in to start the interview, Halliday and crew had seen the General and the German spy emerge from their face-to-face with the Ruler looking dazed. That is why. Being able to test nerve gas and its antidotes was The Ruler’s quid pro quo for letting Nato build a base in his emirate.

Throughout, the novel has proceeded by Halliday either knowing things about himself (his CIA career) or realising things about the plan (the book is a cover, the contractor for the hit is The Ruler himself, and now, that The Ruler demands nerve gas facilities) which are deliberately concealed from the reader. It gives you a constant sense of playing catch-up with a world, with a reality, that is constantly beyond your grasp.

Just before the border they rendezvous with Rainer from Austrian TV and give him tape one of two, the one with the main body of the interview, including The Ruler’s mad cackle and his crazed fantasies about experimenting on human beings. Halliday will hang on to the second tape which contains a bit more of the same and then the ‘reverse shots’ and other shots of the location. While the cars are parked – in a typical piece of Ambler oddity – one of the Rasmuk assassins strolls over to the parked cars and introduces himself to Zander. He is Bourger, now a paid assassin but they knew him as a boy back in Algeria where they lived for a while and where Simone grew up. Bourger is embarrassed about having to do this job, but he will do no killing. He explains he is merely here to confirm the identification of Zander and Simone which, sadly, he has done.

The tape handed over to Rainer, the Dutch crew now free to go their way north, our guys are alone in their van and Zander reveals he’s made a change to the plans. They drive off south but at a junction don’t take the expected route to Italy, but turn left towards Yugoslavia. Bourger and the hitmen pursue them and, contrary to promises, machine gun the van behind them, badly wounding one of Zanders assistants, Guido.

Seeing this from the van in front, our guys accelerate ahead (Simone is feministically driving) and head off down a side track, past abandoned buildings to where the track ends in footpaths up into the hills. Here they grab the machine guns and ammunition Zander had thoughtfully packed and scramble into hiding positions. When Bourger and his men begin to tentatively fan out across the hillside, our team massacres them, in a few seconds killing all four goons.

Having anticipated this turn of events, Zander had readied Jean-Pierre, who now arrives in a hire car. He’ll drive back to the scene of the Guido shooting with a cock and bull story for the police about Zander, Simone and Halliday having caught a train north. Quickly Zander, Simon, Halliday jump into the station wagon and head off in another direction.

After hard driving they turn in the rental car at Salzberg airport and take a taxi to the German border, walking across it with hand luggage then going into an all-night cafe for food. Here Schelm and his forces meet them and spirit them away. It is goodbye, goodbye to Zander, goodbye to Simone. Schelm tells Halliday he’s arranged a flight for him from Frankfurt to New York. It’s goodbye to Schelm.

But Halliday showers and shaves, catches a cab to the airport and onto an earlier plane than Schelm had arranged. He figures Schelm will have organised a reception committee at New York and intends to evade it. In fact, he still walks into it and is stopped and searched at US Customs. However, he had taken the precaution of posting the can of film separately from Frankfurt direct to his agent, who forwards it to the producer at PBS. So all can still be broadcast, right?

Wrong. In the final reversal of the novel, the PBS producer phones him to explain a) the big publishing company that started the whole thing rolling is a major sponsor of PBS and broadcasting the remaining content would antagonise them. Worse, b) after Austrian TV aired the majority of the interview, The Ruler was checked into a sanatorium for people with mental problems by his caring family. Ie broadcasting the interview now would be victimising a poor, helpless, unwell man.

Oh well. He tried to do the right thing. He feels pretty safe from Rasmuk as Zander and co had speculated that, if Rasmuk didn’t get its targets on the first day, it would probably hush the whole thing up. Plus the person who put out the contract, The Ruler, has become incapable of free action so, presumably, the contract has expired.

A few months later Halliday sees a newspaper reports that rumours of discussions between Nato and the UAE about the setting up of a military base in Abra Bay are all false. Ie they’re all true.

And, finally, he gets a postcard from Simone saying the Zander family is being given a new identity and safe place to live, courtesy of the US authorities. Will Halliday want to be in touch once they’re settled?

Time is taking care of Zander, as it is taking care of me, steadily and, presumably, without much more fuss. His family, however, still has a long way to go. I am really not sure how I will reply. (Last words, p.299)

Thoughts

The Care of Time is a long, convoluted story, at every stage involving lengthy conversations in which the characters tease out all the logical alternative plans of action they and their various opponents may or may not embark on. Reminds me slightly of the kinds of process flow diagrams I see at work. Sometimes hard to follow – or you wonder why you are bothering to follow the intricate possibilities when you could skip ten pages and find out what actually happens. 

It is about nominally serious subjects – Nato involvement with the Arab world, fear of chemical warfare – which somehow, through the lens of Ambler’s peculiarly detached and clinical style and his dry sense of irony, become almost empty tokens in an ornate and baroque perplexity of text. It is like a very very very dry martini.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a traditional thriller because, despite containing many of the classic components, it isn’t one. It is something odder and stranger than that. A genuine puzzle. A puzzle which enjoys puzzling over its own puzzlement.

The TV movie

The book was turned into ‘a major television film’, directed by John Davies, starring Michael Brandon as Robert Halliday and Christopher Lee as Karlis Zander, and broadcast in 1990.

Related links

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his own boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which fails and leaves Firman, in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

Vintage Stuff by Tom Sharpe (1982)

Either I’ve changed or Sharpe’s novels have changed, but I haven’t enjoyed the last few as much as the earlier ones. The farce seems forced.

The setting

For authors who went to public school, public schools hold an infinite fascination, hence the number of novels about them from a profession dominated by former public school-educated pupils. Funny how many of them are comedies or gruesome memoirs of cold showers, buggery, incompetent masters and compulsory games. Funny how many authors of these diatribes then send their own children to the same schools.

Sharpe went to Lancing College then Pembroke College, Cambridge. The Oxbridge part of his education is satirised in Porterhouse Blue; it took till his ninth novel to get round to sticking the boot into public schools.

The plot

According to Wikipedia, Groxbourne, the very minor public school where the novel is set, is based on Bloxham school which Sharpe attended before progressing to Lancing. The masters are a bunch of freaks, the headmaster is only bothered about money and the school’s reputation, there is compulsory games and lots of buggery among the boys. Matron gets caught shagging Major Featherstone. And so on…

One particular master, Slymne, hates another one, the slightly freakish one-eyed Glodstone (he has a glass eye and is fond of wearing a monocle over the other one). Glodstone is a besotted fan of boys adventure stories – Rider Haggard, Henty, Buchan, Bulldog Drummond – which Slymne uses to cook up a witty prank. He forges letters from one of the posher mothers, a certain Comtesse de Montcon, resident at the chateau Carmagnac, addressed to Glodstone, claiming she is in great danger, that her son has told her how brave and bold he is, that only he can rescue her.

Inspired with chivalrous thoughts, obsessed with re-enacting the derring-do of his heroes, Glodstone determines to rescue her. Term has just ended, almost everyone has gone home except for one odd pupil, Peregrine Clyde-Browne, an unusually dim, literal-minded boy who was meant to go on an outward bound course which has been cancelled. A pupil in Glodstone’s form, Peregrine had taken to borrowing from Glodstone’s large library of boys stories, had been infected by these tales of derring-do, and now asks to be taken along.

The result is mayhem. Slymne had gone to great trouble to drive across France a few weeks earlier leaving clues and letters at hotels on the way, and now arranges for Glodstone and Peregrine to find them. Abruptly he has second thoughts and tries to cut them off and the middle of the novel is a quite frankly confusing list of small towns in central France which the two characters race between, writing faked letters and finding them, and re-arranging their plans.

But eventually Glodstone – who has been getting colder and colder feet – and Peregrine – who in a teenager way has become more and more over-excited by the mission – arrive at the chateau Carmagnac. By a series of farcical accidents Glodstone falls into the nearby river and is saved and taken into the chateau to be tended. Peregrine thinks he has been captured by the baddies who are holding the beautiful Comtesse prisoner and so breaks into the chateau, creeping along corridors and terrifying at gunpoint the innocent guests he meets.

For the chateau has these days become a conference centre where a cross section of international intellectuals have gathered to discuss world peace. [This gives Sharpe an opportunity to satirise the attitudes of a whole range of national sterotypes circa 1982 – the oil-rich Arab, the Israeli, the ex-Nazi German, the over-intellectual Frenchman, the suave Brit, and especially the Soviet spokesman and the gung-ho American. It is useful to be reminded that clever people were wringing their hands about international terrorism and third world poverty 35 years ago…] After scaring the guests witless Peregrine escapes out of the chateau via the roof and considers his next move.

The delegates call the police who arrive and set up guard with a police van on the only bridge across the river to the chateau. Next night, determined to rescue his master (and the beautiful Comtesse) Peregrine slips under the van and lights the calor gas stove he and Glodstone had been using to cook with, placing it under the petrol tank. BOOM! Several of the French cops are set alight and the van flies into the river gorge.

The international intellectuals pause mid-argument at the moment when a masked assassin bursts in, starts shooting and all hell breaks loose. In that excess which differentiates farce from comedy, the disguised school boy, fired up on 1930s fiction, shoots the American professor dead and nips the penis of the Russian attendee. Delegates run everywhere screaming, Peregrine eventually finds Glodstone and the terrified Comtesse and hustles them down the road to ‘freedom’.

The Comtesse

Except she isn’t a Comtesse. She is a con artist, born Constance Sugg in Croydon, who was a beauty queen, then hussled her way to America, landed in Las Vegas where she got involved hustling marks for the Mafia, until she hussled and blackmailed the Conte de Montcon and ended up marrying him and moving to his chateau, where a little later he died leaving her penniless. Nowadays she works in the kitchen alongside the staff, as well as organising the conferences which are her only source of income.

Their high-falutin’ romantic dreams pretty crushed, Glodstone and Peregrine find themselves taken under the control of this bossy, manipulative woman. Once back at their car she takes charge. While the French police are activated and begin a nationwide search, Constance navigates the boys in their vintage Bentley back to England.

Not a minute too soon because the French police – convinced they have an international assassin at large – find their own security services trumped once the CIA arrive to sort out the murder of their delegate at the conference. Unfortunately, something of the truth of Peregine and Glodstone’s absence had come out ie Mrs and Mrs Clyde-Browne arrived home from holiday to find a letter saying Peregrine’s outward bound course was cancelled but no Peregrine in sight. When they motor to the school and confront the headmaster, he calls in Slymne and Major Fetherington (who runs the school’s Officer Training Corp and manages the school’s armoury) and the shocking truth emerges that Glodstone has gone on a hare-brained mission to France and taken the psychotic simpleton Peregrine with him.

Slymne’s fate

The headmaster instantly orders Slymne – the master who originated this jolly prank – and the Major to motor non-stop down to the chateau to stop Glodstone and Peregrine causing any trouble. They are, of course, far too late to do that but arrive just in time to be caught and questioned by the French police. Then French security. Then the CIA. The cocktail of drugs these three Forces use on Slymne means he never again fully recovers his sanity.

Glodstone’s fate

Back in England, the Comtesse takes the terrified Glodstone to a plastic surgeon on Harley Street who makes him completely unrecognisable – then marries him, thus ensuring an alibi and she can keep her eye on him.

Clyde-Browne’s fate

Constance/the Comtesse confronts Peregrine’s parents (he is a solicitor who loathes his son) with the fact their son is a murderer and terrifies them with the threat of blackmail, until Mr Clyde-Brown agrees to call in his brother, something in Whitehall. This gives rise to a particularly incomprehensible conference involving the British police, Foreign Office, MI5 and Prime Minister on how to defuse the international incident which is brewing…

And the net result is that MI5 show the visiting American CIA officers a man they claim is Peregrine and a top secret SAS operative. For reasons I didn’t quite follow, this appears to placate them and to close the incident for the Yanks and the French.

Peregrine’s fate

The novel ends rather forcefully, I thought, with a last few pages describing Peregrine’s new job as an undercover agent in the British Army in Northern Ireland. Living wild off the land, killing, gutting and cooking his own livestock from his base in a disused well, he is living the Buchan-Rogue Male-Bulldog dream, and has already assassinated five IRA men, two poachers and an off-duty RUC officer, such that the entire neighbourhood lives in fear.

Parting thought

Although a lot of the plot doesn’t make any sense at all, although people behave like imbeciles and shout and swear at the slightest provocation, although the violence seems forced and excessive and the central part of this novel – Slymne chasing Glodstone round central France – was confused and boring — still, there are moments with a kind of Swiftian intensity which leap out and clutch your throat, and which make this book just about worth reading.

But if I was recommending a Sharpe novel for a newbie to read, this one, along with The Wilt Alternative and Ancestral Vices, would be bottom of the list.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Vintage stuff with illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Vintage Stuff with illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story.

The cover above shows the one-eyed schoolmaster Glodstone at the wheel of his vintage Bentley with psychotic schoolboy Peregrine Clyde-Browne next to him. Top right is the French chateau, scene of so much violence, including an American professor being thrown from the battlements into the river, the French police van being blown up on the bridge to the chateau, and the English holidaymakers’ car flipping over.

You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

XPD by Len Deighton (1981)

XPD combines three areas of Deighton’s expertise – World War Two history, spy fiction and the world of Hollywood movies.

It’s a long novel – 431 pages – and interesting and convoluted enough, but nowhere really gripping. Deighton takes the decision to explain what it’s ‘about’ in the first few pages, and shows us all the key meetings between the various protagonists, so there is little or no ‘mystery’ for the reader to unravel, no dastardly conspiracy for us to slowly uncover via hints and tips. Everything is out in the full light of day from the start, it’s simply a question of what’ll happen to the secret documents (see below) – which isn’t really enough to sustain interest over such a long text.

The plot

The head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service explains that at the end of World War Two Hitler ordered all the Nazi gold, art treasures and vast archives of documents to be hidden in salt mines in Thuringia. Almost immediately the advancing Americans found the mine and loaded all the loot into lorries to be sent to Frankfurt. Except some of the lorries never made it. Instead, a small group of American soldiers set up a bank in Switzerland soon after the war ended with a surprising amount of gold bars; one soldier – Colonel Pitman – stays on to run it, the others return to the States to pursue their post-war lives with a healthy amount of financial help and support.

The novel is set in 1979 and all the key players assume the incident is long forgotten so that now – 24 years later – alarm bells go off when a small-time American film producer places adverts in the trade mags saying he’s producing a movie about a group of Americans who steal Nazi gold, and that he’s willing to pay anyone who can send him documents shedding light on this interesting historical episode.

The unsecret secret

Why alarm bells? Again, there is no need for the reader to guess, because Deighton has the head of MI6 – Sir Sydney Ryden – tell a meeting of other security chiefs (and us) that it’s not the gold – it’s the documentation which was included in the stolen loot which matters, for it includes the so-called ‘Hitler Minutes‘, which are the detailed proposals Churchill sent direct to Hitler for a peace in May 1940.

These list the amazing concessions Britain was prepared to make to secure peace with the Nazis and include: creating a joint Anglo-German administration of Ireland, giving the German navy bases at Cork and Belfast as well as all Britain’s other bases from Gibraltar to Hong Kong, restoring to Germany all her pre-Great War colonies in Africa, persuading the French to co-operate, allowing the Nazi fleet free run of the North Sea and so on: almost complete capitulation (chapter 16). Further, SIS agent Boyd Stuart, who is assigned to the case, digs around in the archives and discovers that all the records indicate that Churchill flew to meet Hitler in person in June 1940 (chapter 35) – a stunning revelation.

The premise of the novel is that, if this information was made public, it would ruin Churchill’s reputation (and do big domestic damage to the Conservative party) but also ruin Britain’s reputation abroad, from black Africa (where the British Prime Minister is struggling to conduct tricky negotiations over Rhodesia) to the USA, which would rewrite its opinion of its brave ally.

So what’s at stake in the novel is never a mystery. We know it all. And, as we all know that these ‘secrets’ never came into the public domain back in 1979, there is no real tension about their revelation. Instead, the novel focuses on a small number of interested groups circling around the missing documents, and what ‘interest’ the novel possesses simply comes from wondering which of these various groups will achieve their ends, and which of the 20 or so named characters will be bumped off in the process.

The key motor of the narrative is a small group of Germans, operating on behalf of some ‘Trust’. They put into practice ‘Operation Siegfried’, a sting with two strands: they pull an elaborate international con trick to swindle the Swiss bank the Americans set up out of almost all its funds, thus placing them in a weak position; then they concoct this story about a film being produced about the incident and the adverts put in American papers by a ‘film producer’ inviting people to come forward who have any relevant documents  – tempting the Americans to sell the (to them, largely worthless) papers in order to make good their losses.

But the Americans, in the shape of Chuck Stein, prove more reluctant than the Germans expected. And what are the Germans’ motivations, anyway? A mad idea to restore the Third Reich? Do surviving Nazis need the money? In fact, Deighton shows us a meeting of the Trust where the leaders say they actually want to destroy the documents in order to protect the successful, stable Democratic West Germany; no-one in their right mind wants to go back to the Nazi era (chapter 23). So their motives are surprisingly innocent. Why, then, go about it in such a cloak-and-dagger manner?

But there is also a suspicion that one or more of the leaders of this ‘Trust’ may be Soviet agents, using the Trust’s resources to get hold of the docs, which will immediately be smuggled to the East and publicised with the devastating repercussions for Britain outlined above…

Characters

MI6

  • Boyd Stuart is the nearest thing to a ‘hero’, a 38-year-old SIS field operative, he is married to the head of SIS’s daughter – a bad decision for all concerned, since she’s left him and wants a divorce. He is tasked with flying to LA and finding out more about this ‘film producer’, Max Breslow. Here he dines with the producer and the lead American character Charles ‘Chuck’ Stein and watches fascinated while Chuck produces a sample of the documents – detailed medical records of the Führer showing just how much medication he was on by the end of the war. But behind this affability is violence: an assistant sent out from the Washington embassy is killed in an engineered car crash. Back in London he meets some computer hackers who’ve penetrated a German bank and stumbled across details of the Nazi loot, and who are brutally murdered and dismembered. Boyd begins to wonder whether his own side are bumping off witnesses and asks to be removed from the operation. Permission refused…
  • Sir Sydney Ryden, the aloof, standoffish head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), deliberately vague and non-committal in his briefings to Boyd, who often sets off rather puzzled as to his instructions. In chapter 24 we see him having his regular lunch with the head of German intelligence in Britain, where he gives a bit much away about the two hackers. Later we learn this German is a double agent working for the KGB, who tipped off his bosses, who instructed Kleiber (see below) to murder them. Only right at the very end do we discover that Ryden himself played a key role in the Hitler-Churchill negotiations…

The American soldiers

  • Chuck Stein, enormous fat Yank living in Los Angeles who played a key role in guiding the little platoon which stole the gold and documents, given, like all the war veterans, to reliving entire scenes from those chaotic days in May 1945. He is probably the second male lead, travelling to Geneva to hear from Colonel Pitman about trouble at the bank, and then returning with a faked passport to take the Colonel to safety. Alas, as Colonel Pitman is driving them to the airport Pitman has a fatal heart attack and their speeding Jaguar crashes, killing Pitman, and giving Chuck bad concussion. Despite which he hitches a lift to the airport and makes it onto a flight back to LA, only to be abducted at the airport by Parker, the Russian agent, and held hostage while they extract the whereabouts of the Hitler Minutes from him…
  • Billy Stein, Chuck’s all-American Californian son, a dim playboy who he sends on a mission to London to meet the two computer hackers who’d left a message for Chuck that his name is on the list of people involved with the loot which they hacked from a big German bank. But when Billy arrives the hackers are dead and dismembered, and Boyd Stuart barges into his hotel room with a gun and holds him incommunicado in a ‘safe house’ in north London, hoping to find out where the documents are, or bringing pressure to bear on his father to reveal their whereabouts.
  • Colonel Pitman, the most senior of the gold stealing US soldiers, who now lives in a fine mansion in Geneva and runs the Swiss bank the robbers set up with their swag. He calls Chuck Stein to visit him to explain how thoroughly they’ve been stung in a complex international scam: almost all the bank’s credit was tied up in a pharmaceuticals deal with Yugoslavia which went badly wrong, the intermediary disappeared, the consignment was empty, they’re left with worthless letters of credit. The Brits and CIA leak the information that the Minutes are at Pitman’s house which leads (Russian-spy-working-for-the-Germans) Willi Kleiber to organise a military assault on the Geneva mansion. The raid never goes ahead but it would have found the house empty, anyway, as Chuck Stein, on a second visit, realising things are hotting up, arrives a few hours before the planned attack, persuades the Colonel to meet him at a safe tea rooms in town, where he has the minutes, a stash of money and fake passports. Pitman is driving them both to the airport, at top speed, when he has a fatal heart attack and is killed in the resulting high-speed crash.

The Germans

  • Willi Kleiber, ex-Nazi whose been called in by the ‘Trust’ to flush out the documents. The Trust itself (we see a meeting of the old ex-Nazis in chapter 23) and Max Breslow in particular (see below) are unhappy with Kleiber’s methods, which are violent. When an American producer, Lustig, seemed to find out about the plan, his body turned up in a car boot; when an assistant from the British embassy in Washington is sent out to LA to help Boyd Scott, his car goes up in a fireball; when the Trust learns that two English hackers have penetrated the account with details of the Nazi loot, money and contacts, the two hackers turn up very dead with their heads and hands chopped off. All this is Kleiber’s work. But Kleiber is in fact a Soviet agent, run by Ed Parker (see below). The Brits and CIA leak the information that the Hitler Minutes are at Colonel Pitman’s house in Geneva which leads Willi to organise a military assault on the mansion, planning to hold Pitman hostage till he hands over the Minutes, revelling in assembling a team of heavies and thugs with machine guns to carry out the assault (it’s just like the good old days). However, in the early evening of the planned attack, Kleiber is inveigled into meeting a rich client and slipped a mickey finn by people who turn out to be CIA agents, who have been taping his meetings with Parker and therefore know he is a Russian spy. He wakes up in a safe house in Carolina to discover the CIA know everything about him and Parker, and have enough evidence to send him to prison for 100 years; therefore, would he like to become a double agent?
  • Max Breslow, ex-Nazi and now small-time Hollywood producer, more at home with TV movies, but finds himself called upon by the Brotherhood of ex-Nazis to pretend to be staging a movie based closely on the actual events of the gold heist, in order to flush any Yanks with information or documents out of the woodwork. Against his better judgement he is thrown into partnership with the brutal Willi Kleiber, climaxing in the set-up in Geneva where he is shown the small army Kleiber has assembled, pops out for lunch, and returns to find them all being rounded up by the Swiss police who have been tipped off about them (by the Brits or the Yanks). He evades arrest and flies back to Los Angeles only to find himself, in a bizarre scene, pursued through the sets of Hitler’s Reichs Chancellory which have been created for the film, by a concussed and crazed Chuck Stein with an antique WWII pistol.
  • Franz Wever, ex-Nazi, captured by the English and a POW in East Anglia he never went back but settled and became an impoverished farmer. Boyd Stuart goes to interview him and Wever’s memories of being called in Hitler’s presence and being given the instructions about taking the gold to the salt mine are probably the most vivid part of the novel (chapter 13). As Stuart’s car trundles down the track from his farm, the farm abruptly explodes. Stuart goes back to find Wever dead, and a wall safe exposed from which he extracts a small sample of the Nazi documents. Stuart realises that, had he left even five minutes later, he also would have been killed. Who is trying to kill him?

The Russians

  • Yuriy Grechko, top KGB man in America.
  • Edward Parker, a Russian sleeper, based in America for 12 years, outwardly a respectable businessman, in fact Russia’s leading spymaster and Kleiber, the ex-Nazi killer, is one of his agents.
  • General Stanislav Shumuk, very senior in the KGB. Arranges to meet Boyd on neutral territory in Denmark and reveals all about Grechko, Parker and Kleiber to him, on condition he murders Kleiber for him. Which Boyd agrees to do.

The CIA

Chapter 30 introduces us to various officials in the CIA, with some Frederick Forsyth-esque explanations of the duties and powers of the various sections and departments etc. The point is that they’ve detected that Parker is a senior KGB agent and want to entrap Kleiber. They’re not that interested in the gold or the documents and so make a gentleman’s agreement with Sir Ryden that both intelligence services will carry out their respective projects without stepping on each others’ toes.

  • Melvin Kalkhoven, tall, thin, age 35 (p.271) is the main figure, who bugs the safe house where Parker and Kleiber meet then leads the team which drugs and abducts Kleiber on the eve of the latter’s planned assault on Colonel Pitman’s Geneva mansion, and flies him back to the States where he is made an offer he can’t refuse ie to become a double agent.

Thoughts

The fundamental problem is I didn’t much care: I didn’t care whether this supposedly earth-shattering secret was revealed, and therefore didn’t care which of the competing groups (MI6, Germans, Russians, Americans) got their hands on it.

The most compelling sections were the reminiscences of the war by the various veterans, Wever’s encounter with Hitler being the standout, but also the various battlefield memories of Stein, Pitman and others of their comrades, flashbacks to the intense situation in the war’s dying days which are used to explain how the robbers came together and carried out the heist.

As for the plot, it just got more and more byzantine and around page 350 I wondered if it was deliberately meant to be turning into a kind of Ealing comedy, deliberately comic in its top-heaviness. But in the final 30 pages there are some last-minute plot twists, further revelations about the Hitler-Churchill meetings, and it ends on an unpleasantly cynical note which quashes any comic feelings.

Quite apart from the lack of ‘grip’ or ‘thrill’, I found an unevenness of tone a problem: not with the prose which is solid and serviceable enough, though I did notice repetition of some phrases as if it hadn’t been completely proof-read. I mean the ‘moral tone’. Some scenes are played for macabre laughs, some are deadpan, some contain blank factual content about Nazi bureaucracy, like an encyclopedia fascistica, and then some parts or cruel and cynical, like the ending. This unevenness of tone is there in the early Ipcress novels but concealed, or is part of, the cool, humorous detached style of those early books. In Deighton’s later, less cool and elliptical, more factual novels, it comes over as simply a moral vacillation, an attitude that’s neither full-blown cynical, nor warm and humane, but an uneven gallimaufry of both, with other fragmented attitudes in between.


Details

It’s a cliché of the thriller genre that the protagonist is made to feel old, tired and jaded by his experiences:

  • Suddenly he felt tired and rather old. (p.314)
  • ‘I sometimes think I’m getting too old for this sort of work. Do you ever have that feeling?’ ‘Almost every day,’ said Boyd Stuart. (p.367)

XPD

XPD stands for Expedient Demise ie murder by the security services. Boyd grumbles about the SIS and worries whether his own side might be setting him up. But at the very end of the novel, having ascertained the full story from Kleiber, certain that the Hitler Minutes are safe with SIS, and at the last minute demanding the only photographic evidence of the Hitler-Churchill meeting which it turns out Kleiber had all along, Boyd then prepares to inject Kleiber with poison to eliminate him.

Having seen him flirting with his girlfriend and arguing with his ex-wife, Deighton has gone out of his way to make Boyd an attractive and very human protagonist. It is a deliberate slap in the face, then, to learn right at the end that he is willing to murder under orders.


Computer hacking

Deighton was an early understander of the power of computers, after all the Billion Dollar Brain at the centre of that novel is a super-computer, programmed to carry out a massive war plan and that was 50 years ago, in 1966.

This novel features the first reference I know to computer hackers. In chapter 23 two young men in London hack into a big German bank where they stumble across the details of the Nazi gold/Operation Siegfried and, as Chuck Stein’s name is prominent, they contact him in distant Los Angeles. As Chuck is out they leave a message on his answerphone, which the SIS themselves are tapping, and so which leads Boyd to the hackers’ shabby flat near King’s Cross. They explain that they call themselves COMPIR, computer pirates, and do it for fun. It is their bad luck that the head of SIS refers to them in his conversation with the London head of West Germany’s spy agency, who is a double agent, passes it onto the KGB, who pass it on to Willi Kleiber, who proceeds to murder them gruesomely.

The hackers hacked.

Related links

Granada paperback edition of XPD

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

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