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.

What I talk about when I talk about running, by Haruki Murakami

Summary: what I humblebrag about when I humblebrag about running

Haruki Murakami has written 11 novels. I have written one. Haruki Murakami runs a marathon every year. I have run one. Haruki Murakami has run an ultra marathon and is talked about as a potential winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I once won a lottery in a pub in Andorra for a pair of skis.

So, in spite of all the envy, I don’t mean it to be sour grapes when I say that this book seemed to me an extended humblebrag rather than anything approaching worthwhile literature.

The book is something of a memoir, Murakami reflecting on his life and work and running through the prism of his running. Structure, such as it is in this book, relates to his preparations for a New York marathon. But I didn’t find much in it in the way of profound philosophical insight or poignant reflections. Talent is the most important thing for a writer! Who’d have guessed? Staying fit may help you remain more artistically productive for longer! Amazing. He has become a slower runner as he has got older! Join the club.

The most compelling section of the book was, I found, an almost purely descriptive one, recounting his participation in an ultra-marathon. Most of his reflections I found quite banal.

His athleticism clearly matters to Murakami. But it is difficult to see how his almost elite level of competitiveness has much to say about the general human condition. I’m not sure it even has much to say about the general condition of runners.

Indeed, if the greatest tragedy in your life is only managing a 4 hour time in the New York Marathon, perhaps it really is time to check your privilege.

Lyndon Johnson, volume 2: Means of Ascent, by Robert A Caro

Summary: A detailed guide on how to appear a war hero and steal a Texas election

Robert Caro describes there being two threads running through Lyndon Johnson’s life: a bright one of commitment to public service that he displayed as a young teacher of poor Hispanic Texan students, or as a young congressman driving rural electrification for poor Texas communities; and a dark, selfish one, concerned with his self-promotion and personal enrichment without the least care as to who he hurt to achieve this.

In this volume of his biography of Johnson, covering the years from his war service to his election to the US Senate, Caro notes that only the dark thread is visible.

Even Johnson’s military service is problematic. Despite his commission as a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy Reserves Johnson gave little impression that he was really interested in active duty as he had promised in various speeches. Eventually though concerns about future electoral credibility compelled him to participate in a mission to the South Pacific as an observer. In this role he participated, again as an observer, in a single, terrifying combat mission, for which he was awarded the Silver Star. While he did display a certain coolness under fire, it was notable, Caro observes, that the actual aircrew he was flying with, who risked their lives in dozens more missions, were not considered for bravery awards. As is still the case, who you know matters more than anything else. So, as a congressman on the naval affairs committee, Johnson knew General McArthur who recommended him for the award, no doubt thinking that Johnson might be a useful ally on Capitol Hill.

A considerable portion of the book focusses on Johnson’s senatorial election. This was a revolutionary campaign. It was the first in which a candidate used a helicopter. This Johnson used to ferry him from town to remote Texan town, brandishing his Silver Star while he told the crowds gathering to see this strange new flying machine exaggerated stories of his war. The quantity of Johnson’s usage of radio as a campaigning medium was also unprecedented.

Johnson had already shown himself to be a superb organiser of elections from his management of the national Democratic congressional effort in 1940. However when all the electoral innovations that he brought to bear on this election still came up short, Caro argues convincingly that Johnson resorted to the old-fashioned expedient of stealing the election from the former governor Coke Stevenson, an ultra-conservative Democrat.

Caro clearly has a soft spot for Stevenson, undoubtedly an extraordinary individual, which has perhaps led to him skating somewhat over his reactionary views. Not that Johnson was a progressive champion. His liberality was always only skin deep, something worth appearing when Roosevelt was president, but shed quickly when campaign financiers demanded he dance to a different tune. Perhaps Johnson felt justified in stealing this election having had his previous effort to become a US Senator stolen from him by another former Texas governor, Pappy O’Daniel.

With Volume 2 of his biography of Johnson, Caro again provides a compelling portrait of Johnson, his times, and his place, with fascinating insights into Texas politics and history. I’m already looking forward to reading volume 3.

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.

Night of the Bayonets, by Eric Lee

Summary: Georgian-Soviet tensions coming to a bloody reckoning in the last European battle of the Second World War

In their various books both Timothy Synder and Max Hastings have endeavoured to demonstrate how the good versus evil myth so beloved of British Second World War nostalgists, rings very hollow for the peoples of central and eastern Europe. For countries like Poland and Ukraine, for example, the experience was rather to be caught between the monstrous regimes of two of the Twentieth century’s greatest murderers: Stalin and Hitler.

With Night of the Bayonets, Eric Lee focuses in on one small but hugely illuminating example of this bleak reality. 

In the early hours of 5 April 1945, Georgian soldiers serving with the Wehrmacht on the Dutch island of Texel rose up against their German comrades, butchering many of them with knives and bayonets as they slept. 

As Eric Lee explains, the Georgians may not have been enthusiastic Soviets, Georgian independence and democracy having been strangled in the cradle by the Bolsheviks. However, they were unlikely to have been enthusiastic Nazis either. Politics was probably less a factor in them turning their coats than survival. Having been captured by the Germans earlier in the war, donning the German uniform seemed one of their few chances of survival, the alternative being death by a swift bullet or by starvation and disease in a prison camp. 

With the approaching end of war however, the Georgians were pitched onto the horns of another dilemma: how would they be received back in Stalin’s USSR having served in German uniforms. Stalin had already declared surrendering Red Army solders to be traitors. The Georgians must have been aware that if they returned to the Soviet Union they would likely end up liquidated or in a Gulag. 

So, insurrection must have seemed a reasonable gamble, demonstrating their continued loyalty to the Allied cause, and by allying themselves with Dutch communists, with the cause of the Soviet Union. 

It was only after battle was joined that the Georgians found out what other resistance fighters, from Warsaw to Prague to rural France, also discovered: that they were expendable as far as the Allied high commands were concerned. As in Warsaw the Germans also realised this, and so they decided to take their time in exacting revenge on Georgian fighters and Dutch civilians alike. It was not until late May, long after VE day, that Canadian forces landed on Texel, ending the battle.

Other books – most famously Cornelius Ryan’s description of the fall of Berlin, or Stephen Harding’s account of the extraordinary action at the Schloss Itter in Austria – have claimed to be accounts of the “last” battle of the Second World War in Europe. However, Lee’s account of this “last battle” is important not as a historical curiosity, but because it also illuminates so much of contemporary Europe, not least in explaining something of the origins of the ongoing tensions between Georgia and Russia.

Night of the Bayonets is an elegantly written and important work of history, In providing a non-Anglo-American perspective on the Second World War in Europe, it may usefully punctures some of the contemporary myths of the Second World War that still pervade attitudes in the UK. For this, and for much else, it deserves a wide readership.

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

Summary: Yossarian’s sanity almost drives him mad.

I once had a boss who had to vacate his office in favour of his superior because the said superior had discovered that his own office was two square feet smaller than that of my boss.

Anyone familiar with the world of work will have similar stories to tell about the petty jealousies and mindless bureaucracies that can blight this aspect of our lives. But such stupidities rarely threaten our lives – unless of course you are a health care worker depending on Boris Johnson for PPE during a global pandemic.

Mindless bureaucracy and petty jealousies are rarely the central themes of fictional portrayals of war, even though they are a frequent discussion in military history: Grant and Lee’s arguments over protocol at Cold Harbour, for example, that cost the lives of so many wounded. Or General Mark Clark’s career of incompetence during the Second World War’s Italian campaign.

Catch 22 sought to remedy that however. Bureaucracy, pointless protocol, military etiquette, get rich quick schemes dominate the narrative because it is these that dominate the priorities of those who don’t have to risk their lives.

However for the novel’s anti-hero, John Yossarian, none of these things matter. He just wants to survive. Unlike his superiors, Yossarian knows what flack can do to a human body. He just wants the unrelenting terror of operations to end and to go home. However Yossarian discovers no matter how often he braves the guns of the Herman Goering division, he still has to fly. His superior’s dreams of martial glory leads him to keep pushing up the mission count in the hope that this will help him to become a general. Yossarian, like his pal the Chaplin, does not have the comfort of insanity or selfishness to cushion him from the pity of war, and so hovers perpetually on the edge of breakdown.

Catch 22 is a sprawling book, hopping amongst characters and their diverse but interconnected misadventures. Such is its complexity that George Clooney’s exceptionally fine television version of the story required robust editing of the narrative elements.

It is often described as a satire, and it certainly is rich with black comedy. But Joesph Heller was himself a veteran of 60 combat missions, like Yossarian, as a bombardier in the Italian campaign. So the horror of that experience is never far from the surface, and is something that moves centre-stage in the final chapters of the book.

Some years after Catch 22 was published a reporter put it to Heller that he had not written anything as good since. “No,” said Heller. “Neither has anyone else.”