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 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.

Some stocktaking

Summary: the struggle goes on from the spare room

So, after a year of lockdown I thought I should make a note of what I’ve done this past year:

  1. Learned how to zoom
  2. Read War and Peace
  3. Wrote a guide to the Forced Labour Protocol for the International Trade Union Confederation
  4. Co-wrote a report on child trafficking in Albania with OSCE Presence in Albania
  5. Wrote a guide to data gathering and reporting for Albanian child protection workers with OSCE Presence in Albania
  6. Wrote approximately 50 expert reports for trafficking cases
  7. Used zoom to record a contribution to a panel in Trinity College Dublin on human trafficking
  8. Delivered two public lectures – one on Frederick Douglas, and the other on ethical leadership – via the medium of zoom
  9. Realised I didn’t really know zoom at all
  10. Published my first novel, The Undiscovered Country
  11. Wrote six articles for Thomson Reuters Foundation News on aspects of contemporary slavery
  12. Read all seven of Mick Herron’s Slough House novels
  13. Conducted two evaluations of livelihoods programmes in Myanmar (before the Coup)
  14. Read part one of Don Quixote
  15. Started writing a book on ethical leadership
  16. Perfected making soda bread

Maybe this coming year I’ll have a chance to go for a swim again.

Joe Biden: American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos

Summary: a hopeful portrait of the man striving to rescue American democracy

Joe Biden: American Dreamer is a brief but engaging biography of the US President-Elect, by an author who has covered Biden’s career for over a decade.

Much of the book has previously appeared in New Yorker articles over the years. But it is well researched and elegantly edited together into a highly readable and intriguing portrait of a man who has found a third act to his career just when most other people would be putting their feet up in retirement.

Even before reaching the presidency, Biden’s life has been marked by spectacular achievement and almost unbearable loss. Elected to the Senate just before his 30th birthday appalling personal tragedies followed soon after with the death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. Tragedy struck again when Vice President and his son died of cancer. The grief he has had to bear has eroded much of the arrogance typical of senior politicians and enhanced his legendary gift for empathy.

Still, after decades in the Senate and eight years as Vice President, one might think that a Biden presidency will offer few surprises. But, Osnos describes Biden as a man with a remarkable capacity for learning and acknowledging error and hence an almost Lincolnesque capacity for personal growth and political evolution.

A cautious politician, Biden nevertheless has a keen eye for the historic opportunity. So, appreciating the shifts in the current political environment, most notably the growing hunger amongst young people for social democracy, Biden has incorporated into his campaign leading advisers from the Left of the Democratic Party to help craft key plans for government including on health and the environment.

Biden has suggested a number of times that he wants to have not just a transitional presidency to a new generation, but also a transformational one, comparable to FDR.

In defeating the openly fascist Donald Trump for the presidency Biden has already earned a place in history by helping rescue American democracy itself. And, as Osnos’ book indicates, it would be a fool who would suggest that this is the last service he will do for his country before he finally puts his feet up for that well earned rest.

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.

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.

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.