Summer Loving; and A Recipe for Love, by Nicola Yaeger

Summary: rom-coms that show us how the world can be a better place

Once, many years ago, when he was still “The Joan Collins’ Fan Club”, I went to see a performance by Julian Clary. Large chunks of his material were old jokes, deliberately chosen, and with charm and elegance he would imbue every other line with salacious double entendres. I don’t think I laughed as much that whole year… but it was Belfast in the middle of the Troubles when it rained all the time. So there was that.

I was reminded of that Julian Clary show reading Nicola Yaeger’s books: they are unashamed romantic comedies, so you know pretty much what the plot is going to be from the first page. That is the nature of romantic comedies – apart from The Love Letter: man that is the bleakest romantic comedy I have ever sat through. Don’t watch it if you are feeling fragile. Try something more light-hearted like Calvary instead.

Because sometimes the joyful assurance of the romantic comedy is exactly what you need: when I worked in Angola during the civil war there I used to hire a pile of romantic comedy movies every weekend just to have something to remind me that there were kinder places and people than the warlords who plagued one of the most beautiful countries on earth.

But I digress. Much as Ms Yaeger occasionally does in her wonderfully entertaining books. Read these and you’ll learn about art, Eastern European tall tales, surfing, and cooking in such a way as to make you want to book a surfing lesson or buy a new book about French cuisine.

Nicola Yaeger is a charming and extremely funny writer, the sort who rarely bothers with the double bit of the entendre. Like Julian Clary at his best, like all of literature if we are being honest, she retells old stories in elegant, new ways, reminding us there are kinder places and people out there, people who will make you laugh and care about your well-being.

In a world full of complete feckers who are busy brexiting up our fragile planet for all they are worth, it is good to be reminded of this sometimes. And Nicola Yeager does that in glorious fashion.

Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, by Maggie Haberman

Summary: portrait of a fascist as a fat man

The character of Biff Tannen in Back to the Future is based on Donald Trump: bullying, lazy, greedy, misogynistic. Confidence Man traces the original Biff’s career from the corrupt world of New York real estate to the American presidency.

It is a depressing story, but, in hindsight, seems almost inevitable now. Because, enabled by his overweening sense of entitlement and his daddy’s money, Trump has one talent that Biff lacked. As the title of Haberman’s absorbing book suggests, Trump has the instincts of a grifter. Like Giovanni Ribisi’s character in the short lived, but highly entertaining, series, Sneaky Pete, it is Trump’s instinct every time he is caught in one lie to double down with another, to meet every attack with a counter attack, and, where possible, to get his retaliation in first. 

According to Haberman Trump was once told, “You’re really very shallow.” “Yes” he agreed, “that is my strength.”

Everything is a transaction to Trump in a zero sum game. For him to win there must be a loser. Love, selflessness, compassion, empathy are meaningless to him. Haberman reports Former White House chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly, describing Trump as “the most flawed person” he had ever known. 

Yet enough Americans confuse Trump’s brand of meanness with strength to vote to award this revolting human being the Presidency.

Not that Trump ever understood the role he had won in a constitutional system. Again and again in this book he is described as unable to comprehend why he is not permitted to do the unlawful. How he yearns for the unconstrained power of a Putin or a Hitler. Nevertheless even corralled by the law and the constitution, Trump and his acolytes still managed to do more damage to the concept of “government of the people, by the people and for the people”, than the entire Confederate army.

Haberman’s fine book is not just an explanation of Trump but also a warning: given the chance again this bloated fascist will reek further chaos.

Northern Heist, by Richard O’Rawe

Summary: nasty men doing nasty things, nastily

At Christmas 2004 the IRA robbed the Northern Bank, putting the Peace Process, not for the first time, in jeopardy.

Taking that incident as his inspiration, with Northern Heist Richard O’Rawe has imaginatively reconstructed how a bunch of professional criminals would go about robbing the “National Bank”. This fictional institution occupies much of the same physical space as the Northern Bank that was actually robbed in Belfast. And, this being Belfast, of course, their shenanigans do not go unnoticed by the Provisionals who want a cut of any action the criminals manage to obtain.

With its focus on deeply unsympathetic criminals, particularly its anti-hero James “Ructions” O’Hare, Northern Heist reminded me of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. Its depictions of the Belfast underworld also echo with Maurice Leitch’s classic novel, Silver’s City. 

Overall, Northern Heist is very fine work from O’Rawe.

Act of Oblivion, by Robert Harris

Summary: a fine historical thriller based on the manhunt for the regicides of Charles I

The Act of Oblivion was a key law in British history. It paved the way for restoration of the monarchy by promising to forget the offences of most, but not all, of those who had waged war on Charles I.

Exempted from the act were the regicides, those who signed the death warrant of Charles. For them the fate of hanging, drawing and quartering awaited.

Many foolishly surendered to the crown and were tortured to death in this way in spite of their pleas for mercy. Others had to be hunted down.

Robert Harris’ book focuses on the manhunt for two of the regicides: William Goffe and his father-in-law Edward Whalley. Goffe and Whalley have had the good sense to make for North America as Charles II approached English shores. But, they wonder, as the search for them reaches across the Atlantic, is this far enough?

Act of Oblivion is a fine thriller. It is also a fine historical novel. It would be a superb introduction to the English Civil War for anyone ignorant of the subject. It is, appropriately enough, a warts and all portrayal of the period, charting the descent of the parliamentary cause into a horrendously bigoted, brutal military dictatorship. It also details the bloody revenge of the royalists following the collapse of the Commonwealth

Other reviewers have described Goffe and Whalley’s principle pursuer, a fictional character called Richard Naylor, as a “monster.” But I think this misses the point of the book.

While the principle sympathy of the book is with Whalley and Goffe, Nayler has become what Goffe and Whalley once were and would have continued to be had they not fallen from power: a merciless zealot.

Early in the book Harris quotes the biblical verse “an eye for an eye.” Because Martin King was not born until the 20th Century he cannot go further. But this book is an illustration of King’s point that, if pursued, this maxim of vengeance leaves the whole world blind.

Some stocktaking, part 2

Summary: not dead yet

Last year, about 12 months into the lockdown, I thought it would be a good idea to make a note of what I had done to see what it amounted to. Thought it would be a good idea to do the same again as 2022 turns to autumn. So:

1. Finished reading Don Quixote.

2. Wrote another bundle of expert reports on trafficking cases. One (at least) helped force a reverse in the UK’s unjust decision to deport a survivor of slavery.

3. Conducted virtual evaluations of three projects in Myanmar and left in awe of the extraordinary courage of local civil society’s efforts to mitigate the consequences of the military’s brutal onslaught on the country’s ordinary people.

4. Edited a special edition on the Journal of Modern Slavery on slavery in humanitarian crises, with an introductory essay entitled, Older than Troy

5. Read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mighty novel of the war in Biafra, Half of a Yellow Sun. Think it might actually be better than War and Peace.

6. Finished writing and published my book, Ethical Leadership: moral decision making under pressure

7. Wrote an article for Open Democracy identifying the UK’s plan to deport migrants to Rwanda as a crime against humanity.

8. In aid of Children in Crossfire, I did my first 10k in years, around Kew Gardens, very badly.

9. Delivered a couple of public lectures in the great city of Belfast, including one at the legendary First Church in Rosemary Street.

10. Managed to go for a swim in Margate. Don’t think I will try that again until the British government decides that dumping raw sewage into the sea is not really much of a Brexit benefit.

11. Read Apeirogon, by Colum McCann, a desperately sad but inspiring perspective on the struggle against apartheid in Israel.

12. Completed a first draft of my second novel, Some Service to the State, about the repercussions from an enquiry into the fate of a missing girl in a newly partitioned Ireland. Started looking for a publisher.

Apeirogon, by Colum McCann

Summary: a desperately sad but hopeful perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Rami Ethanan, a graphic designer, and Bassam Aramin, a scholar, are friends. They have a lot in common. Both are smokers. Both are former combatants. Both understand the deep, moral corrosiveness of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Both understand that peace requires people to talk to each other and try to understand each other’s point of view. Both are the fathers of murdered children: Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers; Bassam’s daughter, Abir, was murdered by Israeli soldiers.

Apeirogon is the story of how, in particular, these two men have sought to advocate for peace by building mutual understanding. But it ranges even more widely, into the lives of their families, including their murdered daughters, and into the cultural and political history of Israel and Palestine.

(From the Guardian)

I finished this book just before Israel launched its latest series of child-killing attacks on Gaza. As usual, in such situations, American politicians are to be found on social media congratulating themselves for the US military support to Israel that allows its leadership to launch such attacks on Gaza with impunity. Such politicians find the slaughter of children with rockets, and American journalists with bullets, much more palatable than the murder of children by suicide bombers. But that is the logic of the US’s military alliance with what the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, has called an apartheid state.

The asymmetric nature of the warfare between Israelis and Palestinians is very much on display with the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. In prison, for throwing a dud grenade at an Israeli patrol, Bassam realised that responding to Israeli violence with violence, even if only stones, plays into the hands of those who want to sustain the occupation: it allows them to portray Israeli violence and theft as defensive, and the Palestinians as less than human. As a result of this realisation Bassam became committed to the ideal of non-violence.

Rami, recognising the common humanity of Palestinian and Israeli families who had suffered similar losses to his own, came to his own realisation that the status quo offered no real security for Israelis either. His wife, Nurit, a distinguished academic and peace activist, had understood this much earlier: with enormous courage she explicitly and publicly blamed the racist and militaristic policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the death of her daughter.

Apeirogon reminds us that as well as the meat-headed terrorists in the high echelons of government and the military, Israel and Palestine also have thousands of people like Rami and Bassam: people committed to non-violence, human rights and dialogue as a path towards justice.

For success such activists need international support. Yet the US and Europe fail utterly to do this, privileging Israel with arms and trade rather than compelling the dialogue that is essential for any meaningful peace to be forged.

Apeirogon is an extraordinarily important book. It is a tribute to the thousands of (asymmetrically) marginalised Palestinians and Israelis who have sought to build peace and fraternity through dialogue and understanding rather than acquiesce in violence. How many more children will be slaughtered before their path is recognised as the only truly viable one?

Photo by Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken; and Fake Law, by The Secret Barrister

Summary: the UK’s process of becoming a rogue state explained

The Secret Barrister’s first book, Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken, described the contemporary criminal justice system in England and Wales and how years of underfunding have left it dangerously unfit for purpose. Fake Law looks at the law more widely and examines how populist politics, dishonest journalism, and increasing authoritarianism in government have led to a wholesale assault on ordinary people’s most basic rights.

Taken together these two books are an elegantly written primer of key elements of UK law and how it is practiced. However they also represent a searing indictment of the ongoing assault on the fundamental tenets of rule of law in the United Kingdom.

Take, for instance, that perennial bug bear of the English Far Right, the Human Rights Act. The Secret Barrister describes in some detail how, to take just one example, the victims of the serial rapist, John Worboys, were only able to obtain any remedy for the appalling police failings in the case that left Worboys free to assault other women, due to the Human Rights Act. This piece of British law allows citizens to hold the government to account for its failings. Hence it draws particular ire from those who believe that ministers and other public servants, such as the police, should not be accountable before the law.

As the Secret Barrister points out, it is untrue that the UK has no constitution. This, they note, is scattered through diverse pieces of legislation stretching back centuries. Fundamental to the UK constitution is the supremacy of parliament. This does not mean the “supremacy of government”. Government is also meant to be accountable under the laws set by parliament, and it is the role of the courts to publicly administer these laws, including whether the government is acting in accordance with them.

This is pretty fundamental to how the UK is meant to work. But findings of government unlawfulness, such as with the Tory government’s plans to withdraw from the EU without primary legislation, or Boris Johnson’s unlawful attempt to prorogue parliament, have drawn particular venom. For example the vile Daily Mail infamously declared judges “enemies of the people” for just doing their jobs. And parliamentarians and government ministers from both Labour and the Tories, some of them, like Harriet Harman and Dominic Raab, qualified lawyers, have wilfully misrepresented due process and demanded removal of citizens’ human rights protections because, they think, it plays well with sections of the electorate: “There go the people. I must follow them because I am their leader.”

The resulting political climate has allowed the government to advance their programme of reducing the human rights protections, and access to justice, of some of the most vulnerable in society, and limiting the power of the courts to scrutinise government incompetence and abuse.

The Secret Barrister’s books should be required reading for every individual who has the temerity to put themselves forward for elected office. While some of them struggle with the big words, the rest of us should read them to get informed and stay angry about the sustained assault on rule of law that is being perpetrated before our very eyes by the authoritarians who currently dominate the UK’s parliament and government.

Great Hatred: the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, by Ronan McGreevy

Summary: a fresh and gripping new perspective on the Irish war of independence in London

Great Hatred is a superb addition to the literature of the Irish revolution. Similar to Anita Anand’s, The Patient Assassin, McGreevy explores the lives of the killers and the killed. So Great Hatred provides a triple biography of Reggie Dunne, Joe O’Sullivan and their victim, Henry Wilson. The result is a book that is hugely illuminating on the conduct of the War of Independence in London and the experiences of the London Irish community during the First World War and in the fight for Irish freedom.

As Director of Intelligence of the IRA, Michael Collins had a central role in London operations, so he is also a major figure in this book. One thing that did niggle with me was the author’s apparent acceptance, along with many other fine historians, of Emmet Dalton’s criticism of Collins’ actions at Beal na mBlath, and the idea that the only rational option was to try to run the ambush rather than stop and fight into it. This seems to me to ignore the realities of IRA ambush practices which Collins would have been more familiar with than Dalton.

Like so many other books, this one also does not mention that the last Dail representative for South Armagh in Northern Ireland was Collins. This is emblematic of the depth of Collins’ emotional commitment to the North, and in exploring this McGreevy seems to have found the key to the enduring mystery of who gave the order for Wilson’s killing.

Great Hatred is a fresh, elegantly written and wholly gripping work. It is one of the best books on the Irish Revolution in many years.

Silence Among The Weapons, by John Arden; and UnRoman Romans, by Siobhan McElduff

Summary: two wonderful books that in different ways remind the reader of the consequences of violent prejudice for ordinary folk

John Arden (1930 to 2012), a long-term resident in Galway, was a distinguished playwright, and an English member of Aosdana, the elite Irish artistic association. Silence Among the Weapons was his only novel, and was short-listed for the Booker when it was first published in 1982.

1982 was when I first tried to read the book, which I found difficult at the time and brought it back to the library once I had finished part one. This recounted events in Ephesus leading up to the arrival of the Roman general Sulla’s brutal army. 

Over the subsequent years I have often wondered what became of Ivory, the book’s principle narrator, and his lovers, Cuttlefish, an Ethiopian who has been enslaved since childhood, and Irene, an agent of the Persian King. So, I decided to track down a copy and finish what I started all those years ago. 

Like Arden himself, his principle characters are theatrical types. It is from their perspectives that the “great” events are viewed. These include the conflict between Sulla and Marius for mastery of Rome, and the ferocious Social War unleashed against the Italian allies of Rome who had the temerity to claim greater civil rights.  (One part of the book, dealing with Ivory’s adventures with pirates, I thought was probably an allusion to Hamlet who went on a similar jolly before turning Elsinore into a charnel house.)

Silence Among the Weapons led me to Siobhán McElduff’s wonderful book, UnRoman Romans. This is a reader of the ancient sources that she compiled with her students. It deals with the experiences of and attitudes towards people like Ivory and his friends: the slaves, the thespians, the dancers and the gladiators who “elite” Romans despised but upon whom their privilege depended.

I suspect the lives of Arden’s characters are based more upon his own experiences in the theatre than on the ancient texts. But one thing he seems to get very right: McElduff notes that “the Romans were frequently quite appalling in their treatment of those they considered outsiders or different, ” and this is something that Arden conveys starkly.

There is a clear intent in Arden’s writing to sound modern in spite of the ancient setting. Hence his references to “police” and theatre “green rooms” among other things. This is, I think, both to increase the reader’s empathy for his characters and their circumstances, and because, for Arden, Sulla, Marius and the Social War are mere examples of the colonial violence that has plagued the world for centuries. The second part of the book, for example, dealing with the eruption of the Social War makes very clear allusions to the beginnings of the Troubles in Derry: Arden even traces the beginning of his conflict to the reaction of the “City” to the reasonable demands of a “Civil Rights Association.”

I must say I still found portions of Silence Among the Weapons difficult: for one thing I would have expected a playwright to be able to present dialogue more clearly, but much seemed buried in long paragraphs. But the book is well worth persevering with. It is often funny, occasionally horrific, and the characters appealing. One hopes against hope that they can somehow escape the random carnage that is engulfing their world.

It is a great pity that, in spite of its remarkable success upon publication, that Silence Among the Weapons now appears to be out of print and in little demand. A book that asserts the importance of remembering ordinary people in the midst of the machinations of warlords should never be forgotten.

Ashenden, by W Somerset Maugham; The Mask of Dimitrious, by Eric Ambler; and Bad Actors, by Mick Herron

Summary: a glimmer of a new day on Spook Street?

As the increasing brutality and lawlessness of Boris Johnson’s British government becomes manifest, the forlorn cry of “We are better than this” emerges from time to time from the ineffectual British Left. To which, many South Asians, Africans and Irish respond with the question, “When exactly?”

England has certainly been different to this, as the attitudes on display in these three spy novels written over the course of the past century demonstrate. But it is not clear that it was much better when they were written.

Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden concerns the adventures of the eponymous writer who is recruited into British intelligence during the First World War, as Maugham himself was. The book is mostly set in and around Geneva, Maugham’s own principal intelligence haunt during his spooky days.

Starting in Istanbul, the superb Mask of Dimitrious traces a route through central Europe to Paris in the interwar years. It concerns another writer, Charles Latimer, as he tries to piece together the career of a man who has taken advantage of the bloody chaos following the collapse of the Central Powers to reinvent himself as a master criminal.

Bad Actors, is Mick Herron’s eighth novel in his glorious Slough House series. It follows the hilariously grotesque Jackson Lamb and his Joes as they collide with on-going Russian machinations to take advantage of Brexity Britain.

Each book echoes its antecedents. All three have a fine sense of place. But aside from this they are tonally quite different: Maugham a master of supercilious Englishness; Ambler more hard-boiled but with a keen awareness of the pity of post-First World War European history; and Herron is carefully attuned to how the farce of Brexit nourishes a similar authoritarianism to that which haunted the central Europe of Ambler’s book.

Taken together with Greene and Le Carre these novels suggest a society that has fundamentally changed over the century, shedding at least some of its ignorant self-satisfaction. Instead there appears to be a growing awareness of how Britain has often been an amoral or malign influence in the world. Now, reflected in Herron’s black comedic works, Britain’s silliness is increasing in proportion to its diminishing economic prospects and political influence.

Perhaps then there is a faint glimmer of hope that Britain can become “better than this.” Until then, different generations of spy writers offer interesting insights on how well it has understood what it has actually been.