The Pigeon Tunnel, by John le Carre

The Pigeon Tunnel is a memoir presented in the form of short stories and vignettes from the author’s life. Some are extremely funny. Some, such as his brief appreciation of his friendship with the late ITN newsreader Reggie Bosinquat, or his disclosure of how he came upon the character of Issa in A Most Wanted Man, are very moving. Some shine an unexpected light on aspects of world affairs in forlorn and forgotten places over the past 40 years. All are exquisitely written.

I cannot recall enjoying many books as much in recent years. And yet I am not sure I know David Cornwell, John le Carre’s alter ego, any better having just finished this book. Le Carre tells us much about the things he has done and seen, including, towards the end, a beautifully written chapter on his relationships with his parents, in particular his con-man father, Reggie.

John le Carre, aka David Cornwell

But there is always a sense that le Carre is only prepared to disclose so much and is wholly in control of those portions of his biography that he is prepared to be known. He is substantially silent, of course, on much of his work as an MI6 officer. But he is also very silent on his love and family life: siblings and offspring are referred to with much affection but little information; the ending of his first marriage is referred to only obliquely, as is his finding love with his second wife, Jane.

In truth le Carre’s subject in The Pigeon Tunnel, is not David Cornwell, but the books that Cornwell wrote under this nom de plume – their points of origin, the research undertaken to bring them to publication, and, occasionally the adventures involved in transposing them to film.

It’s a lovely and frequently fascinating excursion with one of the finest living writers of English. Treat yourself and read it!

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Muhammed Ali

When We Were Kings, by Leon Gast
The Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, by Mark Kram
The Tao of Muhammed Ali, by Davis Miller 

img_0912My first proper memory of Muhammed Ali was waking up to the news of his victory over George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974. I watched the BBC Sports film of the fight the next evening. It was  awe-inspiring.

This fight is the principle subject of Leon Gast’s electrifying documentary When We Were Kings. The bloody, thieving, murderous dictator of Zaire, Mobuto, had decided that the world heavyweight title fight would help put Zaire on the world stage. Gast’s movie is an account of the extraordinary circus that resulted. It intercuts documentary and news footage from the time with illuminating interviews with, among others,  George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, on the bizarre circumstances surrounding the fight, and on the phenomenal fight itself.

When We Were Kings is a great introduction to Ali, both as a cultural and political figure and as a boxer. His victory is beautifully explained as one not just of his technical fighting skills, but of his strategic thinking skills.

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Rope-a-dope

Years later George Foreman described the devastation of having been beaten by someone so “braggadocio”. This is but a hint of the darkness that is frequently ignored in discussions of Ali. This comes much more to the fore in the Ghosts of Manila, an account of the rivalry between Ali and the great Joe Frazier. Frazier had been a supporter of Ali in the wilderness years when Ali had been stripped of his licence to box because of his courageous refusal to fight in Vietnam: “I ain’t got not quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me nigger!” he said by way of explanation.

However this was no protection to Frazier from Ali’s often cruel and lacerating invective. Frazier came to detest Ali and their brutal fight in Manila in 1975 has become a thing of legend.

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Manila

Both fighters inflicted incredible damage on each other in dreadful heat, displaying incredible levels of endurance and courage just to keep up with each other. However by Kram’s account Frazier had effectively won the fight by rendering Ali unable to take the ring for the 15th and final round. All Frazier needed to do was to stand up. Then his manager, without consulting Frazier, threw in the towel, appalled at the damage that Frazier himself had already sustained in the fight. Frazier never forgave his manager and this extraordinary stroke of luck for Ali became a fundamental element in his legend.

But brutal fights such as Manila and the necessity to fight on almost to middle age that resulted from the loss of his license in his peak years, took their toll on Ali’s body and resulted in the Parkinson’s Disease that afflicted his final years. Davis Miller had met Ali at the peak of his career but became friends with him in these years. The Tao of Mohammed Ali is about a number of things including this friendship, writing, boxing, and perhaps most poignantly about Miller’s relationship with his own father. It is a fine and moving book that describes beautifully what Ali meant to ordinary fans, millions of who are today bereft at the news of his death.

The world is a duller, smaller place with Ali gone. But in many ways it is a better one in part because of what he did and what he stood up for. We will never see his like again.

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Ali delivers the coup de grace on Foreman (Plimpton and Mailer look on – bottom right)

 

The Dark Side of the Force: Human agency and human belief

 Much of the Star Wars universe is brilliantly executed fantasy. Some of it – think ewoks and bleeding Jar Jar fecking Binks – is execrable. But in the midst of all of this there is at least one important philosophical point: Obi Wan and Vader follow the same religion. The only difference is that Vader’s path is on the “Dark Side”.

Many belief systems have similar “Dark” and “Light” sides. An atheist, for example, can follow the “Light Side” by viewing life as something she had better do right because she will only get one shot at this. Or she can decide that she can do what she likes, given that there are no immortal consequences for even the worst of actions.

Similarly a Christian could follow the “Light” by seeing each of us a human beings in the image of God in spite of our flaws and differences. Or he could take to judging how poorly everyone else appears against his subjective standards and inflicting his notion of righteous vengeance at every opportunity.

Martha Nussbaum, in The Fragility of Goodness, argues that humans often do evil not because they transgress a moral system, but because they privilege one moral system, or perhaps a particular interpretation of a moral system, over another. Christopher Browning demonstrates the depth of depravity that can emerge from such thinking when one group of “Ordinary Men” in Eastern Poland during the Second World War decided to uphold their perceived duties to their Furher over their more fundamental human duties not to butcher unarmed children, women and men in cold blood.

But, in spite of the power of well demonstrated social pressures in such circumstances, human agency, the choices we make based on our beliefs and values, is still at the core of human action. A person can still choose to be a decent person in spite of the social pressures to the contrary. Or, indeed in spite of their underlying belief system: two of the great “rescuers” of the Second World War, Oskar Schindler and John Rabe, were both card-carrying Nazis. So decency, even heroism, does not depend simply on the belief system that we choose. It also depends on how we choose to interpret it.

I have known great and humane atheists. I have known great and humane Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddists. I have also known one person who used their noisy public commitment to vital human rights issues as a cloak to disguise the immense depth of their moral cowardice and venality. And then there are the murderous Crusaders of history, the Nazis, the Maoists and Stalinists, the Klan and their ideological cousins in Islamic State – those who use their beliefs as excuses to choose the darkest and bloodiest paths through life.

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The “Light Side”

Richard Dawkins and his fellow travellers like to blame religion for so many of the world’s ills. But the sprawling silliness of Star Wars, and the mythical universe that it has created, has hit upon a much wiser understanding of human nature. As Shakespeare, the great chronicler of human folly and human evil, also understood: the faults are in ourselves.

Genius is no excuse: Bobby Fischer Goes to War, by David Edmonds

bobby-fischer-exhumedBobby Fischer Goes to War is a compelling account of the 1972 world chess championship, accessible to non-chess players and of interest to students of the Cold War: the account of this match is well contextualised in the politics and culture of the time and in the biographies of the two protagonists.

At the centre of the account, as repulsive as ever, is the American Bobby Fischer the challenger, one of the greatest chess players who ever lived and a venial, spoilt, perpetually petulant overgrown adolescent, unforgivably indulged by the championship organisers in his whims and tantrums. The Russian, Boris Spassky, the reigning champion, by contrast is a more sympathetic figure, contributing to his own ultimate undoing by acquiescing too easily with the pusillanimous and cowardly behaviour of the organisers.borisspassky

Those who do not appreciate chess may regard this story as “much ado about nothing”. Those who love the game will enjoy the account and lament how an event that could have been a marvel of sportsmanship, courage and analytical thinking degenerated into such a farce.

The rules

therules1. If you want authority take responsibility.
2. Always keep your woman happy.
3. The price of wisdom is failure.
4. It is better to ask forgiveness than seek permission.
5. The possibility of death or injury to those you are responsible for outweighs the probability of death or injury to those you want to help.
6. Always remember the scores you should settle.
7. Always consider the possibility that the best use for a sacred cow may be skinning and eating it.
8. Never hit anyone unless they are not going to get up from it.
9. It is being accepting rather than assertive that tends to get you killed.
10. Don’t shoot the prisoners.
11. Doubt is a virtue.
12. Necessity clarifies the fights that are required.
13. It’s not how hard you can hit that matters but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.