The Spy Who Loved, by Clare Mulley

Summary: An exceptionally fine biography of Krystyna Skarbek (aka Christine Granville) and her incredible exploits as a resistant to totalitarianism during World War 2

The Spy Who Loved is Clare Mulley’s exceptionally fine biography of Krystyna Skarbek or Christine Granville as she later styled herself. Like all great biographies it does two things: it not only gives the reader a strong sense of what their subject was like, but it also provides an powerful introduction to their times. Neither of these are trivial matters, but the former is immensely complicated by the fact that Skarbek lived so much of her life clandestinely at one point taking the opportunity to shave 7 years off her age when obtaining an official identification.

Determined to resist the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia which consumed her own country, Poland, Skarbek led a remarkably dramatic life, first as a British liaison to the Polish resistance, and later as a Special Operations Executive agent in France. There she was a witness to the desperate French insurrection on the Vercors, and she played a central role in the Resistance preparations for the Allied landings in southern France. Her exploits included securing the defection of an entire German garrison on a strategic pass in the Alps, and, armed with little more than her courage and quick wits, saving a group of her colleagues from almost certain death following their capture by collaborationist police.

The title of the book, The Spy who Loved, is a deliberate reference to James Bond and the, unfortunately unlikely, story that Skarbek was the model for Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. It also is a reference to the fact that Skarbek’s expansive sexual history was also Bondesque.

Judith Matloff, in her very fine account of the Angolan Civil War, notes how booze and promiscuity are common reactions to the experience of trauma. But, at moments, Skarbek’s choices put me in mind not of Bond, but of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s extraordinary creation “Fleabag”, a character deeply damaged by grief and guilt, and seeking fleeting respite from the pain through sex.

Nevertheless, Skarbek’s lovers, for the most part, were lucky in her choice of them. Several had her to thank for their lives. They remained devoted to her memory and some even tried, abortively, to write her biography together.

Skarbek had a difficult time readjusting after the war. She was almost certainly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But, because she was Polish and a woman, she got little support from officialdom. Unable to settle she got a job as a steward on an ocean liner where she was subject to bullying and petty harassment by others in the crew who disliked her being “foreign”, One of the few who befriended her on the liner was a man called Dennis Muldowney, who became obsessed with her and, eventually, murdered her.

It was an appallingly sad end to such a spectacular life. Clare Mulley has done Skarbek some measure of justice with this superb biography.

The Power of Geography: 10 maps that reveal the future of our world, by Tim Marshall

Summary: a further compelling lesson on geopolitics from Tim Marshall who highlights some of the challenges – and opportunities – that humanity will face in the coming decades

The Power of Geography is a follow up to Marshall’s magisterial introduction to geopolitics, Prisoners of Geography.

In this volume he focuses on some emerging issues, including how we as human beings will explore space. He also discerns potential for conflict arising in important parts of the world, such as the Sahel and Ethiopia. These places are often little understood to outsiders. But issues arising there are likely to have a huge bearing on the course of human events in the coming years as ancient national aspirations, global warming and competition for water forces political choices that will ripple out across the planet.

I regretted that Prisoners of Geography had no discussion of Britain and Ireland. This book does have a discussion of the UK, currently a leading contender for the title of most bizarrely deluded country in the world.

It has earned this unenviable accolade by deciding to make policy for itself with almost no discernible consideration of geography. Brexit, the fevered wet dream of a few disaster capitalists and frothing xenophobes, has now become the guiding principle of UK policy. Marshall pays little attention to the disastrous impact of this policy on Irish peace, which was built on the foundations of the UK’s and Ireland’s common European Union membership. But he does note how it has added impetus to the Scottish desire for independence. This consequence of Brexit would, Marshall observes, likely cause greater damage to the UK’s international standing than Brexit itself.

If that happens it would be a deserved fate. Over the past half decade the UK seems to have embraced a vision in which international rule of law should not apply to it. Hence its legal commitments are today hardly worth the paper they are written on. Such rogue states are not deserving of respect.

Of course, Marshall has a much broader perspective in this book than the repercussions of Brexit. His discussions also encompass Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain, Greece and even Australia. Each chapter is filled with fascinating historical and geographic detail and a clear perspective on their geopolitical implications. It is an outstanding companion to Prisoners of Geography and an essential book for anyone interested in current affairs and the issues that may confront us in the coming years.

Warriors: Life and death among the Somalis, by Gerald Hanley

Summary: An exquisite book about an unusual aspect of the Second World War in a part of the world that is still little known and understood

Warriors is Gerald Hanley’s account of his experiences during the Second World War when he was posted to Somalia as an officer with the King’s African Rifles. Somali friends have described it to me as the best book about Somalia written by a foreigner.

Hanley was not a typical British officer. An Irish Catholic from Liverpool, he was politically anti-colonialist, and so had an instinctive sympathy for those on the receiving end of the British Imperial project. He seems also to have had a particular fascination with Somalia and the Somalis. He appreciated their fierce individualism, and perhaps had some sense of kinship with them: the stories he tells, of their raiding, their magic and their poetry, has echoes of the Ulster cycle of legends from Iron Age Ireland.

Later Hanley led Somalis in battle in Burma. He remembered how the Somalis appreciated the Japanese there. They were a rarity: an enemy that the Somalis could go hand to hand with who would not run away. 

The troops of the King’s African Rifles were from many parts of Africa and many different cultures and communities. But they were united by the common usage of “army Swahili” as their medium of communication.

Hanley reflects at one point that this common language and the experience of common purpose and mutual dependence that war brought gave him a glimpse of a community that the British Empire could have been. But of course, he was also aware that the very moment he discerned this possibility it was already too late. Such a vision was already fatally undermined by the British Empire’s original sins of theft, racism and subjugation.

But it’s a reflection that I was reminded of this week when the Scottish elections delivered a decisive mandate for a new independence referendum. In response English politicians and commentators again made assertions that Britain is “better together”. But it is far too late for this hollow argument after half a decade of concerted campaigning and government intent on proving that the UK is a singularly English project in which the hopes and fears of subordinate nations simply don’t matter. English contempt for Irish peace, for the Scots, and indeed for the rest of Europe, apart from Putin’s Russia, is hardly any foundation for a community of equals.

So, fifty years after the first publication of Warriors, the UK looks as doomed as the British Empire. That’s also probably a good thing.

Do Not Disturb: The story of a political murder and an African regime gone bad, by Michela Wrong

Summary: An exceptional, and exceptionally courageous, study of Paul Kagame’s Rwandan dictatorship

I’ve been a fan of Michela Wrong since her first book exploring the history of Congo, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz. Her subsequent books on Eritrea, and particularly, on Kenyan corruption have been excellent.

Do Not Disturb is, however, by far her best book. It is an extraordinary work exploring the path to power of Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda.

Kagame, and Rwanda, have been the darlings of Western aid donors for decades. As Wrong points out he’s a regular at Davos. Both Labour and Conservative UK governments have fawned over him, and his musings pop up from time to time in the Guardian.

Which is all quite strange because it has been plain for decades that Kagame is a psychotic war criminal. He has waged illegal war. His armies have plundered eastern Congo with vicious abandon. He has assassinated democratic opponents in foreign lands. And he has massacred civilians both at home in Rwanda and abroad. In other words, Wrong details the atrocities of a man as rapacious of Central Africa as the worst of the colonial powers.

Since his earliest days as an intelligence officer in the Ugandan bush, Kagame has never been one to put himself in harm’s way. However he is an enthusiastic giver of orders, sending others out to murder on his behalf. As president Kagame has shown himself a petty bully as well as a murderous dictator.

Alongside Kagame’s story Wrong explores the careers of, among others, Fred Rwigyema, Rwanda’s lost leader, killed in disputed circumstances in 1990 shortly after the RPF invaded Rwanda, Seth Sendashonga, Rwanda’s first post-genocide interior minister, a democratic Hutu politician assassinated on Kagame’s orders, probably with the assistance of Patrick Karegeya, whose own assassination opens the book and whose story provides a thread through the narrative.

Given all of this, the book is not just an exemplary work of history and journalism, it is also a work of extraordinary courage. Wrong knows how vindictive Kagame is, and how murderous his state apparatus is: she details it here. Nevertheless she has done the whole of the Great Lakes region an immense service, by exposing in such unflinching detail Kagame’s corrupt brutality.

If, over the past two decades, donor governments had shown but a modicum of Wrong’s courage perhaps Central Africa would have fewer graves. Maybe now, at least, Kagame may have fewer preening op-eds in the pages of the Guardian.

The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, by Anne Applebaum; and The Assault on Truth, by Peter Oborne

Summary: Lies, and the lying fascists who tell them

I was in Brazil just before Jair Bolsonaro was elected to the presidency there. Why not give him a chance, one taxi driver asked me. What’s the worst that can happen?

The soaring death toll from Covid in Brazil rather answers that question. As similar levels of carnage have shown, under Trump in the US, and Johnson in the UK, electing fascists is never good for the national health – literally. How could it be otherwise when people are but livestock and cannon fodder to them.

In spite of the setback that Joe Biden delivered fascism with his defeat of Trump in the United States presidential election, authoritarianism remains a potent threat to liberal democracy and to the lives and livelihoods of millions across the planet.

These two books are important contributions to the struggle against the far-Right not least because they are by conservative writers: Applebaum a moderate US Republican married to a centre-Right Polish statesman; Oborne is a former Brexiter.

Both books are concerned with the centrality of lying to authoritarian political projects. Applebaum’s perspective is more international, exploring populist political projects in Europe as well as the United States. Oborne focuses much more sharply on the UK and in particular how Boris Johnson has so throughly corrupted British politics and mounted a concerted assault on the independence of the civil service and the judiciary, and debased the notion of parliamentary accountability. It may be churlish to point out to Oborne, given that he has somewhat rethought his position on Brexit, that Johnson’s assault on democracy is more easily undertaken outside the European Union than within. But that is the case.

These are useful books, but hardly happy ones. The rational arguments and pleas for decency that they contain are unlikely to find purchase in the fevered fantasies of the ultras. But they do help the rest of us understand better the machinations of the far Right. And, if we ever hope to successfully oppose something it is first necessary to properly understand it.

The Slough House series, by Mick Herron (Slow Horses; Dead Lions; Real Tigers; London Rules; Spook Street; Joe Country; Slough House)

Summary: extraordinarily bingeable, spooky epic

I started reading Mick Herron’s Slough House series a month or so ago thinking this will be a series to keep me entertained over a year or two, a palette cleanser between volumes such as Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson or other more “worthy” reading material.

Thing is, once I’d finished volume one, Slow Horses, I had to check out volume two… and once that was done, there was an urgent need to find out what was going on in volume 3…

So, in the end, I’ve read all seven books in the series in about a month, and it’s one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in many a year.

The Slough House series recounts the misadventures of the denizens of Slough House, a bunch of failed MI5 officers, stuck into a run down office in the Barbican area of London under the supervision of the vile Jackson Lamb. (“You broke the arm of a 23 year old woman.” “I’d have broken the arm of a 40 year old man too. This is what a feminist looks like.”)

Tina Fey once discussing her comic creation Jack Donaghy, for her sublime TV series 30 Rock, described him as an archetypal nightmare boss: not just one who was repulsive, but worse still one who was right an awful lot of the time.

Mick Herron’s creation, Jackson Lamb, turns this all the way up to eleven: a misanthropic, rude, bullying, flatulent, unsanitary nightmare who is, nevertheless, very funny, ferociously smart, protective of his subordinates from anyone apart from him bullying them, and just the sort of violent talent you want at your side when the chips are down.

Mick Herron has been compared with John Le Carre, and the Slough House series shares a similar milieu, and political concerns, charting the rise of authoritarianism in Brexity England. But this is Le Carre on acid. The books are very funny, often violent, and pervaded with a deep sense of dread that arises from the knowledge that your favourite characters dwell in these pages under mortal threat.

Having finished the latest novel in the series, Slough House, I am bereft. Treat yourself and jump in.

The Splendid and the Vile, by Eric Larson; and Destiny in the Desert, by Jonathan Dimbleby

Summary: Two somewhat contrasting views of Churchill as war leader

I know a lot of people have become passionate about The Splendid and the Vile, Eric Larson’s narrative of Churchill’s first year as prime minister. Drawing on accounts, such as private secretary Jock Colville’s diaries, the book seeks to paint a picture of both the private and the public man during this period when invasion seemed imminent.

Following Larson’s fascinating account of murder during the Chicago World Fair, Devil in the White City, I was warmly disposed to this book. I found it all a bit hagiographic though. Churchill is an interesting biographical subject because he is problematic. A racist and an imperialist contemptuous of the starvation of Indians during the 1943 Bengal famine, he nevertheless played a decisive role in the preservation of democracy in Europe. But Larson’s portrait of Churchill is one without the warts.

Dimbleby provides a much more balanced depiction of Churchill in his account of the north African campaigns. As with his later very fine book, The Battle of the Atlantic, Dimbleby pays lip service to Churchill’s genius. But, as with the fighting in the Atlantic, he shows that Churchill’s choices and decisions in the desert displayed a considerable operational fickleness in part influenced by geo-strategic and political considerations. Nevertheless, in both theatres one gets a very strong impression that Churchill had a tendency to get distracted with other enthusiasms and adventures before finishing the urgent task in hand. For example, he did not finish the conquest of Libya before peeling off troops from the North African armies in a forlorn effort to prevent Greece from falling into Axis hands. This then allowed Rommel’s entry to North Africa via Libya with all the bloody problems that that subsequently caused.

In other words, Churchill was often the author of the very problems that he said caused him sleepless nights. But he was forever adept at blaming others, and the desert generals were a rich source of scapegoats for him to pin the consequences of his own blundering on. Wavell carried the can for the failures in Libya. Auchinleck, in spite of brilliant success in first El Alamein, earned similar disfavour for refusing to launch a premature attack. Finally, Churchill settled upon the repulsive Montgomery who attacked on the very schedule that Churchill had sacked Auchinleck for advocating. 

Churchill used to say history would be kind to him as he planned to write it, which he did. But now there are other books available. So it is possible to obtain a more clear eyed, and interesting, view of the man than Larson manages.

Gettysburg: The last invasion, by Allen C Guelzo

Summary: a fine account of a key turning point of the American Civil War

At the beginning of July 1863 Robert E Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, invaded Pennsylvania. Lee reckoned that victory in the North, and the final defeat of the Army of the Potomac, would guarantee Confederate success in the war.

He picked his moment well. The Army of the Potomac was in disarray having suffered a major defeat at Chancellorsville in April. This brought about the replacement of that army’s latest commander, Joe Hooker, with the uninspiring George Meade. In addition after years of bloody conflict the people of the North were sick of fighting and Lincoln looked set to lose the 1864 election to a Democrat who would certainly sue for peace.

Lee’s plan was to concentrate his forces close to the town of Gettysburg and then defeat the Army of the Potomac in element as it moved up to intercept him. This would then have opened the road to Philadelphia and even the possibility of capturing Washington DC.

However Lee’s plan was thwarted by one of Meade’s subordinate generals, John Reynolds. Reynolds’ cavalry located Lee and alerted him to bring the rest of his Corps up to Gettysburg to disrupt the Confederate’s concentration.

So began three days of desperate and murderous fighting. One of the first casualties was John Reynolds, killed leading his troops into position. But the Union held the high ground at the end of the first day in spite of Lee’s best efforts. By the end of the day Meade arrived on the field, not exactly gruntled that he was being effectively forced by his subordinates to fight at a place not of his choosing .

Meade’s caution was understandable as the second day of the battle saw the Union almost losing the fight on multiple occasions. Famously Joshua Chamberlain held the extreme flank of the Union lines with an imaginative bayonet charge at a critical moment. But, as Guelzo points out, the fame of Chamberlain’s charge was principally the result of the fact that of the commanders on that flank of the army, he was the only one to survive. Paddy O’Rourke who commanded a New York regiment there, and their brigade commander, Strong Vincent, both made decisive interventions in the fighting but were killed and so did not live to tell the world their stories.

But the “sublime” moment of the battle, as far as Guelzo is concerned, occurred later on the second day when on the orders of another of Meade’s senior subordinates, Winfield Scott Hancock, the 1st Minnesota Regiment under Colonel William Colvill counter-attacked a Confederate assault that was all but assured to overrun the Union positions. Though the Minnesota troops were outnumbered 10 to 1 the impetus of their charge drove back the attackers and saved the day, and with that the Union.

The Union effort over the three days of Gettysburg was a fragmented affair, little coordinated by Meade. Instead the victory was much more a result of the initiative and courage of subordinate commanders and their troops responding selflessly to the crises that they encountered across the field. Guelzo argues that these soldiers knew that the future of the Union would be determined at Gettysburg and proved themselves ready to pay “the last full measure of devotion”, as Lincoln put it, if that was what was required. Eight score years later, it is difficult to reflect on any account of this battle with anything other than horrified awe.

Caste: the lies that divide us, by Isabel Wilkerson

Summary: an elegantly written exploration of the poison at the heart of the American nightmare

“The townspeople of the East Texas village of Leesburg hammered a buggy axle into the ground to serve as a stake. Then they chained 19 year old Wylie McNeely to it. They collected the kindling they would use for the fire at the base of his feet, despite his protestations of innocence in connection to the white girl they said he had assaulted. Five hundred people gathered that fall in 1921 to see Wylie McNeely burn to death in front of them.”

Violence has long been at the heart of American society. It was intrinsic to slavery and it is intrinsic to maintaining the systems of preference and privilege that persist in America. With her book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson focuses with impressive clarity on this violence and how it manifests in small ways and large to maintain the system of prejudice and discrimination that still afflicts the United States.

Following the Civil War the lynchings of innocent black people, such as that of Wylie McNeely that Wilkerson describes in such depressing and horrifying detail, became routine to remind black people that whatever the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution said, they still had to know their place. The contemporary police killings of black people serve the same purpose. It is also why so many Americans voted for a corrupt and imbecilic white supremacist to be their president.

As it did for Martin Luther King, the introduction to the South Asia concept of caste helps clarify for Wilkerson the nature of the United States’ own hierarchical system. But, unfortunately, this book provides only a limited discussion on the plight of Dalits – the Untouchables – and Adavasi – tribal peoples – in South Asia where they continue to struggle against ongoing enslavement, and routinized violence comparable to the worst excesses of the United States.

Wilkerson defines caste as the “granting or withholding of respect, status, honour, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in” a hierarchy. She identifies Nazi Germany, contemporary India and the United States as the principal exemplars of caste societies. Indeed, the Nazis drew on the US South’s segregation laws as inspiration for their own anti-Semitic laws, though they did initially find some of the American laws too extreme.

Wilkerson draws some hope from the fact that casteism has been dismantled in German society. However its persistence in both South Asia and the US shows just what a pernicious and destructive idea it still is. But to have any hope of combatting it, it is first necessary to see it clearly, and this is what Wilkerson does in relation to the practice of caste in her own country

Perhaps having diagnosed with such clarity this sickness at the heart of US society, some US legislators may follow the advice of “the Martin Luther King of India”, BR Ambedkar, and propose new laws to help heal a body politic diseased with ignorance and hatred.

The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman

Summary: A genteel case of murder

This book does much what it says on the tin: a small group of pensioners living in a retirement community get together on Thursday evenings to examine cold murder cases as a way to keep themselves amused and mentally active.

Then a real murder crops up in their midst. So it would be almost rude of them not to investigate. As is the wont with these sorts of stories, the bodies soon pile up.

Osman’s book is a genteel affair: there is little jeopardy for our heroes; the murderees are a thoroughly reprehensible bunch so there is little grieving for their losses. But it is still a very enjoyable book. It doesn’t quite have a twisty plot but it does have a pleasantly rambly one. The likeable cast of characters are thoroughly multicultural but are never troubled by racism or Brexity xenophobia. So it’s a quintessentially English story, even if the England it portrays, if it ever existed, is as dead now as the crooks and gangsters whose corpses the Thursday Murder Club pore over.