The Clare in the Community Collection, by Harry Venning

Summary: the iconic hero we need right now

This book is an exquisite collection of Clare’s adventures from her earliest days, through her legendary years in the Guardian, battling government cuts, office politics, and global patriarchy.

Helpfully the book contains facsimiles of the Guardian front pages that accompanied many of the strips, reminding the reader of the events that would have been irking Clare that week.

Self-righteous, occasionally mean, but always with her heart in the right place, Clare is the wonderful creation of Harry Venning. Together, she and he represent the finest social justice traditions of British society, with better jokes than Orwell.

It’s a sardonic love letter to the do-gooders at the sharp end of a broken country, the ones who will ultimately rebuild a decent society after the old Etonian parasites have finally shuffled off the stage.

Just lovely.

A Foreign Country; A Colder War; and A Divided Spy (The Thomas Kell trilogy), by Charles Cumming

Summary: A fine set of twisty thrillers set in the contemporary world of Western espionage operations against Islamist extremists and functionaries of the Russian kleptocracy

Any contemporary spy novel is going to draw comparison with John le Carre. So, if it’s George Smiley you are most familiar with, these are stories from the lower ranks, the roles occupied by the likes of Peter Guillam or Toby Esterhause in the Smiley books.

When we first meet Thomas Kell he is pretty washed up. On indefinite leave due to allegations of torture plaguing him, with his marriage to a habitually unfaithful wife on the rocks. However he is quickly called back into service to track down a friend who has gone missing: a fellow MI6 officer, Amelia, who is on the verge of being appointed head of the service.

The reader is quickly pitched into the minutiae of the trade craft of intelligence operations. Hence it takes a while to get to know the sort of person that Kell is, as operational priorities dominate the characters’ actions and Kell’s assessment of individual colleagues and targets.

In the pauses in the action Kell is often found reading Seamus Heaney, which is always a dependable indicator that someone is a good egg. As the books progress there is more opportunity for rumination on a profession in which treachery is stock in trade, the toll this takes on its practitioners, and the challenges of the contemporary world, particularly the threats from Islamist extremism, a resurgent kleptocracy in Russia, and most troubling, their points of overlap.

But none of this is allowed to get in the way of mounting narrative tension and twisty plotting: the books often end up in completely unexpected places from where they start out. The Kell trilogy are gripping thrillers and across these three books Kell is an engaging protagonist, wounded and conflicted, but striving towards a moral purpose that often eludes him.

Anatomy of a Killing, by Ian Cobain

Summary: an exceptional work of history and journalism, exploring in careful detail the tragedies and atrocities borne and perpetrated by ordinary people in war

On the morning of 22 April 1978 the IRA assassinated Millar McAllister, a police photographer, in front of his young son. The trigger man, Harry Murray, was one of the IRA’s few Protestant volunteers. A former member of the RAF, Murray had been embittered against the Loyalist community when it had driven him out of his own home early in the Troubles for the offence of marrying a Catholic.

Of course Murray did not act alone, and in Anatomy of a Killing, Ian Cobain presents a horribly gripping account of the operation, not only examining the various roles of those involved, but also their motivations and rationales for their choices, and the strategies, arising in part from history, of both the British and the IRA which led to their actions.

In Cobain’s account the IRA’s adoption of the tactic of “close quarters assassinations” was in response to the revulsion caused by the burning to death of 10 civilians on an evening out at La Mon House hotel. This atrocity was directly facilitated by spectacular incompetence in issuing a warning by the IRA unit who planted the blast-incendiary devices on the hotel’s dining room. But this sort of bloodshed was almost an inevitable outcome of the campaign of “economic warfare” which the IRA in their dubious strategic wisdom had fixed upon.

So rather than risk the bad publicity that outrages such as La Mon provoked, the IRA leadership decided that it was a more moral course to focus on members of the state forces. McAllister was mistakenly believed to be a special branch detective, so this, combined with the opportunity of carrying out an attack in the garrison town of Lisburn led to him being targeted.

Of course the idea that such a killing would have any influence upon establishing a more just British policy in the North was as deluded as the idea that “economic warfare”, the destruction of Northern Irish businesses, would shift British thinking.

The Northern Ireland Secretary at the time, Roy Mason, was a rancid anti-Irish bigot, bone-headedly enamoured with tough talk and aggressive military action. Callaghan’s Labour government, as so often with British Labour misjudging the imperative moral issues of the day, was preoccupied by Britain’s economic travails, rather than any effort to create a just and lasting peace in Ireland.

In other words, both Callaghan and Mason displayed a similar contempt for Irish peace as Stanley Johnson, the father of “Boris”, who in a 2018 interview dismissed the risks to Ireland posed by Brexit: “the Irish will shoot each other if they want.”

Hence Callaghan and Mason were promoters of “Ulsterisation”, the policy that the brunt of security responsibility in the North of Ireland should fall to people from there. People like Millar McAllister, rather than to English, Scottish or Welsh soldiers whose lives Callaghan and Mason valued more highly. Hundreds more ordinary people died as pointlessly as McAllister did until John Hume and others managed to organise a flawed but vital peace process – something that might no longer exist if the European Union had not stopped Stanley’s supercilious son from vandalising it.

Anatomy of a Killing is an extraordinary work, informed by careful research, interviews with the, usually unrepentant, perpetrators, and a proper understanding of the pity of war. It weaves together discussions of both state and paramilitary “high” strategy with unflinching descriptions of its squalid and tragic consequences. It is one of the finest books yet written on the Troubles, and is a vital contribution to writing on the histories of Ireland and Britain at this bleak moment in our shared history.

Pandora’s Jar, by Natalie Haynes; Heroes, and Troy, by Stephen Fry

Summary: beware gift books bearing Greeks

In 1955 Robert Graves published The Greek Myths, a compendium of these stories from creation to the return of Odysseus. Graves’ dark vision bears the mark of the trenches, as he recounts the stories of Theseus, Heracles and the others as descents into atrocity and trauma.

More recently Pat Barker, with her exquisite retelling of the Iliad, The Silence of the Girls, and Natalie Haynes, with A Thousand Ships, The Children of Jocasta and now Pandora’s Jar, have brought a feminist perspective to bear on these stories, finding new focus on the consequences of war for women and children as the “heroes” pursue their dreams of martial glory.

The unsettling insights of these writers seems to have passed Stephen Fry completely. He presents instead a more “jolly hockey sticks” version of these myths. The murders, tortures and general mayhem that his “heroes” indulge in is treated as light comedy, and the rapes are excised almost completely. There is, of course, the unavoidable figure of Helen of Sparta who cannot ever be ignored. So, as if to give some excuse to Theseus for abducting and raping her, Fry states this happened when Helen was 12 rather than as a 7 year old to which, as Natalie Haynes points out, many ancient writers attest.

Hayne’s discusses Helen alongside other of the key female figures of the Greek myths in Pandora’s Jar. Her insights are always entertaining and frequently arresting. Medusa, for example, is remembered now as a monster with serpent tresses whose gaze turned mortals to stone. But before that she was a young woman with beautiful hair who was raped by Poseidon in a temple of Athena, who cursed her rather than her rapist. Poor Medusa then hid some place where she couldn’t hurt anyone until Perseus, egged on again by Athena, showed up to murder her while she slept. Or the fearsome Medea, the beautiful, green-eyed girl without whose courage and learning Jason would never have laid a hand on the golden fleece. She is remembered now principally as the murderess of her own children. But were her achievements and transgressions any better or worse than those other child murderers Theseus, Heracles, and, according to Graves, Odysseus? At least Medea had the honesty not to blame her butchery on Hera or Poseidon, as her male counterparts did.

He murdered her, and their children

Fry’s stories are certainly entertaining. But they are also deeply problematic. Perhaps he lacks the splinter of ice in his heart necessary to look clearly at his protagonists. But he does seem to believe that the serial rapist Theseus and the mass murderer Heracles should be regarded as some sort of exemplars for our contemporary world. Heracles, for example, did show considerable fortitude in bearing the guilt of murdering his wife and children… though that didn’t stop him murdering just about everyone else who ever slightly upset him.

It is only when he discusses the fall of Troy that the scale of the horror he is recounting seems to dawn on Fry. It is, of course, really only at this point, the point when myth begins to collide with history, that the murdered and the raped of these stories were allowed to voice their own hopes and fears. So here it is more difficult to ignore the humanity of, for example, Priam and Cassandra, compared to, say, the cartoonish villains and nameless foot soldiers that Heracles slaughtered in his boneheaded, bloody career.

In her work, Natalie Haynes shows not just erudition, but also empathy for her subjects. Consequently, Pandora’s Jar, and her other books, encourage her readers to think critically about both that mythic and our contemporary world. Fry, drawing on exactly the same sources, offers only an opiate for the masses.

How to fight inequality (and why that fight needs you), by Ben Phillips

Summary: You’ve got to search for the hero inside yourself!

In 2014, a study partly funded by NASA found that the competition for resources and the stratification of society into “elites” and “masses” were key factors in the collapse of civilisations. Essentially, by the time the existential threat to a civilisation began to encroach upon the day-to-day lives of the “elites” to such an extent that they were inclined to do something about it, it was already too late.

Put another way, inequality in itself poses an existential threat to civilisation.

But it’s unquestionably nice for the elites while it lasts. All them private jets and champagne and cocaine quaffed from the bum cracks of super models. Who would ever want to give that up for the mere prospect of human rights for poor people and sustained life for future generations. Better to keep venial charlatans like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump in power than risk paying more equitable rates of tax or submit to more effective environmental legislation.

Ben Phillips suggests, however, that we should not go meekly into the dark night that the super rich would like for us. Indeed, he points out that if the moral arc of the history has bent towards justice, it is because millions of ordinary people have twisted it in that direction in “numberless diverse acts of courage and belief”, as Bobby Kennedy observed.

His book then is a manifesto for the “uppity”, the people who don’t know their place, the people who, like Angela Davis, have had enough with accepting the things they cannot change and have gotten down to changing the things they cannot accept.

It is a vital book, not least for one critical point that Phillips makes repeatedly: if you seek change but do not risk causing the displeasure of the powerful, then you are unlikely to ever obtain the change you seek. Change is achieved by unsettling the status quo and making life uncomfortable for those in charge. Indeed, even the most progressive of politicians need this sort of upward pressure to obtain for them political space for manoeuvre and the impetus to compel them in the right direction. Lincoln, for example, would not have achieved what he did without the agitation of the anti-slavery societies and the courage of the black regiments of the Union army.

This is a point that has been forgotten by many working in movements mandated for social change. Some church leaders, for example, forget that Jesus said, “I bring not peace but the sword,” as they hobnob over sherry with the very government ministers whose policies lead to the enslavement of their own congregants. Some charities so want the favour of government that they formally collaborate with them on the systematic abuse of the human rights of vulnerable people.

If the only thing Phillips did with this book was to elucidate the fundamental importance of the courage to be unpopular in obtaining social change, then this book would be worthwhile. But “How to Fight Inequality” is richer still, with examples on how social change has been achieved, how it has been undermined, and the importance of organisation and patience in achieving change. As a leadership mentor of my own once said to me, “You must always be able to show that your intent to endure exceeds their capacity to resist.

How to Fight Inequality” is a mighty book. It is, in itself, an act against inequality and injustice and one that will hopefully inspire and aid numberless, diverse others to endure in their fight for justice as they themselves inspire others and unsettle the greedy and complacent who threaten the very future of our planet.

The Patient Assassin, by Anita Anand

Summary: A fine account of the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre and its aftermath

On 13 April 1919 British armed forces under the command of General Reginald Dyer opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Indian protesters in Amritsar. The official figure for the dead is 379. The Indian National Congress estimated, perhaps more realistically, over 1,000.

Legend has it that one survivor of the massacre, Udham Singh, swore vengeance that day on the blood soaked earth. And, just over 20 years later, in 1940, this vow was fulfilled when Singh shot and killed Sir Michael O’Dwyer.

O’Dwyer had been lieutenant governor of the Punjab when the massacre occurred. While not involved in giving the order he was a long-standing apologist for Dyer’s murderousness. He was also an instigator of a few massacres of his own around the same time, as part of the British Empire’s bloody efforts to deny Indian self-determination.

The Patient Assassin is something of a triple biography, of Singh, O’Dwyer and Dyer. Particularly in piecing together Singh’s clandestine life, Anand has done an impressive job. Given this, it is almost churlish to complain that she makes some glaring mistakes elsewhere. For example, in her discussion of O’Dwyer’s background, failing to recognise that Daniel O’Connell was an Irish nationalist, indeed the most prominent one of the first half of the 19th Century.

By 1940, Dyer was dead. But O’Dwyer was crass as ever in his justification of the slaughter. It is ironic that a Catholic Irishman like O’Dwyer should have been such a advocate of empire given the depredations of violence and famine that the British had inflicted on his own people. But, there is a class of person, think Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill, or UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, who so desperately want acceptance by the Establishment that they seek to feverishly outdo them in the vileness of their racism, often against people from their own backgrounds. O’Dwyer was one such.

There is actually no evidence, Anand notes, that Singh had been at Amritsar. But whether he was or not the scale of the Amritsar outrage would doubtless have been enough to stir a visceral desire for revenge in him and millions of others across the entire sub-continent. A much smaller massacre by the British in Derry in 1972 was enough to exacerbate murderous insurrection across the North of Ireland.

Nevertheless it is unlikely that assassination was Singh’s primary purpose when he left India and started travelling the world. But the memory of massacre was doubtless an impetuous in his involvement in various expatriate revolutionary organisations. Eventually Singh’s wanderings brought him to London and the opportunity to settle some scores.

The Patient Assassin is a fine and important work of an aspect of Empire history that few British have the first clue about, but which reverberates still in India, where Singh is now hailed as a national hero, and amongst it’s diaspora. Perhaps if this story were more widely known it might go some way to dissipating the misty nostalgia for Empire that still afflicts so many of the English.

Dominion, by Tom Holland

Summary: An absorbing and convincing account of the influence of Christianity on contemporary Western society.

Dominion is essentially a history of thought, specifically how Christian thought, and its offshoots, have shaped Western civilisation over two millennia.

Because it has been with us so long it is easy to lose sight of just what a revolutionary philosophy Christianity was when it first arose in Roman Palestine and then swept across the empire.

The central symbol of Christianity, the cross, is a reminder that Christianity was the antithesis of the prevailing religions and sects which dominated the Mediterranean basin at the time which, often literally, deified prestige and power. The cross was a means to humiliate and torture political prisoners to death, and hence terrorise Roman subjects into obedience to the empire. It was the means of execution of Jesus, a young rabbi whose teachings of love and forgiveness had so unsettled the leaderships of both the Jewish and Roman administrations in Palestine.

Having initially been a supporter of the persecutions of Christians, Paul, on the road to Damascus of course, changed his mind and became one of the new religion’s most powerful advocates. As a Roman citizen he was able to travel the empire and so ensure the spread of this new religion that so radically emphasised the importance of loving each other and good works.

The refusal of Christians to participate in the sacrifices to the Roman gods, including the emperor, marked them apart as subversive to the order of the empire and so a handy scapegoat as the occasion demanded,

Things changed when the murderously psychotic Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and began to transform Christianity into a state religion. This process was briefly interrupted by his successor, Julian, who having grown up watching his family being murdered on the orders of Constantine, a threat that he lived under himself for many years, repudiated Christianity and tried to reinstall the old gods. But even this was irrevocably tainted by Christian thought as Julian insisted that the pagan temples must display charity to the poor, a wholly Christian idea hitherto unknown in paganism.

Holland traces the evolutions in Christian thinking, and the schisms, wars and Reformations that resulted over the subsequent two millennia. Certainly this includes many tales of hypocrisy, intolerance and bloodshed. But alongside these, there are also stories of courage and redemption, such as the ending of Apartheid in South Africa, which show what may be achieved when flawed people endeavour to hold to the ideals that Jesus was assassinated for.

If many in secular Europe with its assertion of universal human rights feel that much of what Christianity had to offer is no longer relevant it is worth bearing in mind that secularism is itself a specifically Christian concept, and human rights, as Holland points out, originally a Catholic idea.

Dominion is a fine, gripping book that helps to understand the origins of Western society and how these origins still reverberate, often unacknowledged, in so much contemporary Western thought.

These Honored Dead; and Perish from the Earth (Lincoln and Speed 1&2), by Jonathan F Putnam

Summary: Abe and Joshua thwart crime in pre-Civil War Illinois

In March 1837 newly qualified lawyer Abraham Lincoln, just arrived in Springfield, enquired at the general store if the manager, Joshua Speed, knew of any accommodation he could rent. Speed did and immediately sub-let half of his own double bed above the store to Lincoln. So began perhaps the closest friendship of both men’s lives.

Me and Abe

All that is in the history books. What is not in the history books is that subsequently Abe and Joshua established a formidable crime fighting partnership – incorporating Speed’s younger sister, Martha, when she arrived in town – to combat evil doers across the state of Illinois. Something in the spirit of the classic John Ford movie Young Mr Lincoln, this is the conceit of Jonathan Putnam’s series of books which begin with These Honored Dead, and Perish from the Earth. (Both titles come from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.)

The books are narrated by Speed, who over the course of the first two, becomes something of an unofficial investigator for Lincoln as he tries to defend his clients from accusations of murder.

The books are wonderful on multiple levels. They are a fine introduction to aspects of the politics and culture of pre-Civil War Illinois, exploring how these impacted on Lincoln’s own evolving political thinking. They are an elegantly written portrait of a burgeoning friendship between two young men who are, at the beginning at least, on opposite sides of the issue of slavery. Both Speed and Lincoln were migrants to Illinois from Kentucky. But while Speed came from a wealthy slave-holding family, Lincoln was from a background so poor that, as a child, his own father ended his schooling and sold him to a neighbour to pay off a debt. These life experiences manifest in different attitudes to the murderous “peculiar institution” when it intrudes into these stories.

The books take details of this historical period, and the biographies of real people who rarely are granted more than a sentence in a history book and breathe life into them. This elegantly illuminates aspects of history which many may feel they know, but cannot easily empathise with. Added to this is Lincoln’s own warm laconic humour and some twisty plotting and the result is something pretty close to irresistible.

What about Donald Trump?

Summary: As Donald Trump endeavours to steal another election, a failure to vote to eject him from office is to be a traitor to all humanity

“Whataboutery” – the practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation of your own – is something of an art form in Ireland. Skilled practitioners can “What about…” all the way back to Richard “Strongbow” de Clare’s invasion of Ireland in 1169 to justify 20th Century IRA atrocities. It’s not a wholly nationalist pastime though. Loyalist practitioners of the dubious art can sometimes go back as far as the massacres of Protestants by partisans of the Irish Catholic Confederacy in 1641 to justify every prejudice and brutality of their tradition.

However Irish primacy in such politically sterile debate has finally been usurped. Unsurprisingly, in this era of political chancers, the preeminent practitioner now is the charlatan-in-chief, Donald J Trump.

Trump has taken “whataboutery” to the next level. He doesn’t just justify his nefarious acts by accusing his opponents of similar heinous deeds. He simply accuses them of the very things he is planning.

So when Donald Trump accused Mexicans of being rapists, it’s because he is a serial sex abuser. When he accused Hilary Clinton of being a crook its because he pilfers from all and sundry, from his contractors, to his own businesses, to the supposed charities that he set up, to the chumps who pay for whatever is the latest brand of snake oil he’s selling. When he accused Clinton of lying it’s because he is fundamentally incapable of telling the truth. When he accuses Joe Biden of using performance enhancing drugs it’s a vain attempt to distract from his incessant snorting of Adderall.

The practitioners of “whataboutery” have always been glib about human life, and Trump is no exception. Like his acolytes in the UK, the desolation and loss of life from the Covid-19 pandemic that he has so ineptly overseen has not disturbed the peace of his conscience. He seems to wholly lack one.

I first began to suspect that Trump had stolen the 2016 election recollecting that he had accused Clinton of trying to steal it herself. His current accusations that if he loses it will be because the election is rigged, is because he is desperately trying to rig it.

Trump starts from an advantage in any election in that the electoral college system that determines who the president is, is, in itself, a gerrymander. This means that in the sparsely populated western states an individual’s presidential vote has much greater value than that of a voter in the more populous states. For example the vote of someone in Wyoming is of 193% greater value than that of a voter in California.

In 2016 Trump leveraged this advantage with the help of Cambridge Analytica’s voter suppression expertise. One can be pretty sure that a bit of Russian hacking in Wisconsin and Michigan helped him over the line in the electoral college.

Trump’s sense of entitlement means that he would not hesitate to steal another election if he can marshal the necessary resources to do it again. This time, of course, the stakes are higher for him with the prospect of prison and creditors awaiting him should he lose. So already he has moved to pack the Supreme Court in case the election ends up there as it did in 2000 with Bush v Gore.

Commanding as Biden’s lead currently is, the next few weeks are going to be nail biting. Because the stakes in this election are not just about the survival of vulnerable US citizens from a plague or the future of US democracy. The planet itself is at stake as the time for meaningful action on climate change runs out.

Given this, anyone entitled to vote in this election who doesn’t vote to eject Trump from the presidency will be a traitor to not only their own country but to all of humanity. And no amount of “whataboutery” will change that fact.

V2, by Robert Harris

Summary: a fine cat-and-mouse style thriller set in the final bloody days of a European civil war

Towards the end of the Second World War the Germans launched a rocket assault on the UK. First with V1 “doodlebugs”, a sub-sonic flying bomb, lethal but possible to be brought down by fighters or anti-aircraft guns. The subsequent V2 rocket however was a different beastie altogether. A supersonic rocket carrying a one tonne warhead, the V2 was impossible to intercept once launched and would strike London without warning and at random. While not as murderous as the RAF’s civilian bombing campaign on Germany, they still had the capacity to wreak a particular brand of lethal terror on a war weary population.

As with his recent book, Munich, Harris takes this historical background and foregrounds it with his own fictional creations: on the British side, a young Women’s Auxilary Air Force (WAAF) officer, part of a team trying to locate the launch sites of the V2 rockets in the Low Countries; on the German side, a rocket engineer, dreaming of space flight but trying to survive the war by causing the needless death of hundreds, an atrocity he finds increasingly troubling. Sympathetic as these characters are, the war means that their allotted roles are to spend its last days trying to kill each other.

V2 is a fine war-time thriller that also offers a melancholic exploration of this most horrific of European civil wars. Nevertheless, unlike the bleak, bleak vista of his last book, The Second Sleep, V2 does carry a glimmer of hope at the end.