Shameless self promotion

The tree was in the river and the kid was in the tree… The kid couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven. He looked like a ragdoll caught in the branches.””

So begins my novel, The Undiscovered Country, which, after a long road to publication, is finally out in time for Second Lockdown/ Christmas. The Irish Times has called it, “‘A smart and pacy debut that details a historical period that deserves further exploration.”

For Hamlet, the “undiscovered country” was death. That lurks within these pages alongside reflections on Dutch people’s relationship with beer and cheese, the origins of the idea of the rule of law, and the true meaning of red-headed women in Renaissance paintings. These ruminations are my protagonists’ equivalent of whistling in the dark as they try to get to the truth about a murder that they stumble upon in the midst of a war for another “undiscovered country”, the emergent Irish republic in 1920.

Try it, you might like it. 🙏

It’s available on Hive https://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Aidan-McQuade/The-Undiscovered-Country/24931562

and on Amazon, https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1783528079/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_rSTAFbSQ8WKS0

House of Weeds, by Amy Charlotte Kean

Summary: what weeds teach us about the human condition

I don’t read as much poetry as I used to, but I loved this book.

As its title suggests it takes its starting point from things we may often overlook or take for granted, but in these things Amy Charlotte Kean finds insights to the human condition, and indeed the universe, that “glitter like C-beams in the dark”.

Reflecting on the White Deadnettle, for example, Kean observes, “They/ sting/ because/ like an evil stepmother/ they flourish/ thru the elaborate dismantling of/ innocence.” Or her ruminations on life prompted by the Stag’s Horn Sumach: “The secret is to worship the poets/ Quote the philosophers, thank the men/ And don’t dare, even once, act normal.”

The book is beautifully illustrated by Jack Wallington, but it is Kean’s poetry that unsettles and stirs the soul.

The Philosopher Queens, edited by Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting

Summary: An exquisite introduction to important, hitherto often suppressed, strands of philosophy from across history and the planet

The first thing to strike you about the book, The Philosopher Queens, is its startling beauty. It is an exquisitely illustrated book that simply lifts the heart just to look at.

More importantly the substance of the book is vital: the editors and authors have picked up the history of philosophy and shaken it “until the hidden women appear in plain sight,” to borrow a line from Natalie Haynes’ wonderful retelling of the tales of Troy, A Thousand Ships.

Starting with Zoi Aliozi’s fascinating essay on Diotima – a character in one of Plato’s dialogues from around 400 BCE who, according to Socrates, taught him “his” method and her philosophy of love – the book progresses across 20 essays via Sandrine Berges’ fine portrait of the great 18th century women’s rights and anti-slavery campaigner Mary Wollstonecraft, to Nima Dahir’s reflections on Aziza Y al-Hibri, a Lebanese-American professor of human rights and Islamic jurisprudence.

As al-Hibri’s inclusion suggests the book avoids a northern hemisphere bias including important philosophers from Asia and Africa as well. These include Shalini Sinha on Lalla, “one of the most influential figures in the religious history of Kashmir”, and Minna Salami on Sophie Bosede Oluwole, “the erudite and provocative shaper of contemporary Yoruba classical philosophy”. In keeping with the book’s revolutionary approach to its subject, there is also a chapter by Anita L Allen on the American activist and political philosopher, Angela Davis. I was disappointed that there were no chapters on Rosa Luxemburg, Martha Nussbaum or Margaret Archer – but books are finite things and such omissions merely demonstrate that there is a need for at least one sequel to this volume.

Each of the essays provides a biographical sketch of its subject and their historical context as well as introducing some of their key ideas. However, these are not hagiographic. The essay on Hannah Arendt, for example, introduces her important work on totalitarianism, and her reflections on the “banality of evil” from Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. But it does not shy away from also acknowledging her repulsive racism, and her “inconsistent treatment of Jewish oppression and African-American marginalisation in the US.” In raising this deeply troubling matter, the essay author, and co-editor of the book with Lisa Whiting, Rebecca Buxton makes the vital point that “no thinker should be idolised above criticism”.

The Philosopher Queens is a book that breaks the mould in more ways than one. It is both a fine introduction to the thinkers that it portrays, and an introduction to important though often neglected strands in “western” and “non-western” philosophy alike.

This book should become a compulsory textbook for students of philosophy. But it should also be more widely read to remind people that the world is a richer and more complex place than some folk may like us to think.

A Legacy of Spies; and Agent Running In The Field, by John le Carre

Summary: two fine, late career works by le Carre assert that Europe is indeed something worth fighting for

It’s no secret that David Cornwall (aka John le Carre) was a MI6 officer before the extraordinary success of his novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. His subsequent Cold War thrillers, many of them featuring George Smiley and his various colleagues, depicted an amoral conflict fought by cynical people for questionable gain but considerable pain. Indeed The Spy Who Came In From The Cold set something of a template for these subsequent works with its gripping portrayal of a British Intelligence plot to kill a senior East German spymaster.

A Legacy of Spies revisits that very plot, exploring it from the perspective of Peter Guillam, another of Le Carre’s recurrent characters, a fellow MI6 officer and friend of Alec Leamas, the eponymous Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It fleshes out some background, ties up some loose ends and answers some nagging questions about that earlier great work.

Agent Running In The Field is a more contemporary story set in the aftermath of the UK’s bizarre decision to leave the EU and bet its future on the whims of the profoundly flaky Trump-Putin axis. Nat, an MI6 officer coming to the end of his career, stumbles across an operation to betray British secrets to the Russians. As he digs into it he finds, with the shifting alliances of the post-Brexit world, and with the corruption of the upper echelons of British society by Russian kleptocrats, that the operation comes closer to home than he could have imagined. (The title is a cheeky nod to Theresa May’s response when asked, “What is the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?”)

Of the two books Agent Running in the Field is perhaps the more satisfying, peopled with believable and likeable characters trying to come to grips with the lunacy of our contemporary world.

But together the two books perhaps represent a reassessment by le Carre of his own life as an intelligence officer. For all the moral ambiguities and unethical activities in intelligence operations, le Carre seems to now conclude that the battles he himself helped fight were indeed important ones, aimed at preserving liberal democracy in Europe from all foes, domestic and foreign. “Everything I did,” Smiley says in A Legacy of Spies, “I did for Europe”.

As the UK falls under the sway of the increasingly authoritarian cabal around Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings it is sobering to contemplate what can happen when the UK’s intelligence agencies do not fulfil their most basic functions of protecting national democracy. Johnson and co have, of course, already taken steps to ensure that their links with Putin are never explored by either MI5 or MI6. Whatever they do next is unlikely to even be in England’s interests, let alone Europe’s.

The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes

Summary: The story of Oedipus is more complex than you might think

The Irish playwright Frank McGuinness has described Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King, as the first police procedural, focussing on Oedipus’ hunt for the culprit responsible for the plague on Thebes. So powerful a vision did Sophocles present that Natalie Haynes herself has argued in her spectacularly entertaining radio series, Stand Up For The Classics, that it has reverberated ever since in the personae of every brooding murder detective to have gotten their own TV show … apart maybe from Miss Marple.

Undaunted by the weight of this literary heritage, Haynes has imagined her own version of the tragedy of Oedipus and his family. Focussing particularly on two of the characters that Sophocles left rather silent, Jocasta and her daughter Ismene, Haynes has managed to craft something of a multi-generational political thriller that put me in mind of Seamus Deane’s masterpiece, Reading in the Dark.

Like Deane’s book, The Children of Jocasta follows the efforts of a young person, Ismene in this case, to unearth the truth of their family’s history. This has been kept from her and her siblings because it represents some rather awkward truths for the powers that be in her present-day Thebes. While there are a few differences between ancient Thebes and 20th Century Derry, human nature remains the same. And like Deane, like Sophocles, Haynes story is filled with compelling and believable characters confronted with some horrible dilemmas.

Haynes has thrown in a few sexy analogies to apricots – something she has pointed out elsewhere would not have been available in Greece for another thousand years – but the rest of her context is resolutely realistic. There are no “deus ex machina”, peculiar riddles, or flying monsters. Swords may glitter beautifully, but they also make horrible messes of human bodies, and power represents a prize that some may sacrifice even the closest bonds of family for.

As with her wonderful account of the Trojan War, A Thousand Ships, The Children of Jocasta brings new, predominantly female, perspectives on stories that many of us may feel we already know inside out. In doing so, she again finds the power to surprise and delight her readers with an exquisite piece of writing.