Book review: The Mission Song

416D4pOM-ZLMy rating: ★★★★☆

Warning this review contains some plot spoilers.

The Basics: An expert interpreter of the indigenous languages of Eastern Congo, Bruno Salvador, is recruited to help facilitate a meeting of the various warring camps in the region. However, whilst eaves dropping on the meeting’s fringes, Salvador hears troubling plans which tears him between his dual loyalties to his African homeland and the British intelligence services he proudly serves.

In-depth: Aside from John le Carré’s most famous books, based on the Cold War and it’s spies, there is also a lesser known body of work which are just as able to thrill their readers. The Mission Song is an excellent and central part of this body. It focuses on the profession of language interpreters, who act as “a bridge” between those who otherwise would have little way of communicating. Le Carré’s journey into this profession is through his creation of Bruno Salvador.

Salvador (aka Salvo) is a languages expert of Central Africa, including several “dying” languages, whose skills garner profitable work for British corporations, law firms and eventually it’s Government.

A physical manifestation of Catholic original sin, Salvo’s father was a Catholic missionary and his mother, an unknown (to him) Congolese woman, gives him a hybrid nature which leads to his racial description by several characters as a “zebra”. This description soon comes to represent Salvo’s central struggle between his loyalties to his romantic childhood homeland of Africa and his adopted home of Europe.

Recruited by the British Government to aid negotiations between several opposing parties from the Eastern Congo, Salvo is dragged into a world of intrigue well beyond his understanding. Flown to an unknown island in the North Sea, with a comic rabble of public schoolboy crusaders, ex British special forces and cockney ‘fixers’, Salvo unwittingly becomes a part of arranging a military coup in Congo.

This aims to install a populist leader for the benefit of the shadowy multinational corporate “Syndicate” which is the organising force behind the negotiations. Vast profits from the many valuable natural resources bestowed on Congo are the motivation, but are loosely masked by high minded promises of the figurehead leader to prioritise all of the Congo’s people’s needs, rather than just it’s elites.

Salvo, and indeed possibly the reader, is initially convinced of the righteousness of this seemingly benevolent mission. It’s most naïve, but gripping defence, is from the chief mercenary tasked with delivering the coup, the wonderful character of Maxie, who monologues the Congo’s bloody history of exploitation:

“Fucked by the Arab slavers, fucked by their fellow Africans, fucked by the United Nations, the CIA, the Christians, the Belgians, the French, the Brits, the Rwandans, the diamond companies, the gold companies, half the world’s carpet-baggers, their own government in Kinshasa and any minute now they’re going to be fucked by the oil companies … Time they had a break, and we’re the boys to give it to ’em.”

However, whilst listening in on the fringes of the bugged meeting, Salvo discovers the true corrupt aim. He also hears the torture the Syndicate are prepared to inflict to secure their desired ends. Pushed to his breaking point, Salvo’s instinctive good drives him into the dangerous act of stealing evidence of this planned coup and pitting himself against his original British employers.

From here The Mission Song moves into the usual le Carré race against time and chasing authorities. However, keen to avoid spoiling the book’s entire plot and finale for any potential readers, I will conclude that the characters and story telling devices le Carré uses to get here means The Mission Song is a part of his wider work well worth reading. It is also a superbly paced novel which is easy to race through in a very short space of time and forms one of his several novels based primarily in Africa. Next up for me in this trip is The Constant Gardner.

Thanks for reading and please do leave any comments below.

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Book review: A Delicate Truth

61BJxHoyp+L__SX324_BO1,204,203,200_A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

The Basics: A charismatic Foreign Office minister recruits an assuming civil servant to be his eyes and ears for a covert operation in Gibraltar named Wildfire. After apparent success, a new Private Secretary, Toby Bell, to the same Government minister becomes suspicious of his master’s highly secretive associations with private security firms & past scandal. Bell is then drawn into a plot to uncover the truth behind Wildfire and what truly happened on the Rock of Gibraltar.

In-depth: Gibraltar was a little while ago all over the news after the triggering of Article 50 in the UK. So it was a happy coincidence when I started my latest venture into le Carré’s canon based on events there.

A Delicate Truth sees a Foreign Office civil servant, Christoper Probyn, recruited for a covert operation to lift a wanted jihadist from Gibraltar. This is done by his boss, Foriegn Office Minister Fergus Quinn. A fiery and charismatic Scot with connections to wealthly, private security companies.

Althought completely inexperienced in any military or field work, Probyn is tasked with feeding back eye witness accounts to help the Minister’s decision making.

Operation Wildfire is told from Probyn’s viewpoint. He listens into a disagreement in the command chain. This is between a soldier leading the British side of the operation, Jeb, and the Minister and his shadowy adviser Jay Crispin, over whether to proceed with the mission. Probyn is whisked away after the operation is apparently completed. Informed of an uncalculated success, Probyn reaps the rewards of a knighthood. As well as the privilege of a plush Caribbean Ambassadorship.

Fast forward three years and Minister Fergus Quinn is still in the Foreign Office. But now with a new Private Secretary, Toby Bell.

Toby becomes alienated and suspicious at the minister’s secretive behaviour. This is down to his past association and scandal with Jay Crispin who runs a private security firm. Breaking his civil service oath, Toby covertly records a meeting between Quinn, Crispin and Jeb. He listens in to them discussing Operation Wildfire.

Meanwhile retired Sir Christopher Probyn enjoys an idyllic, family life in Cornwall. This is rudely interrupted by a shock visit from Jeb from Operation Wildfire. Jeb alleges that the operation was not a success. The target was not lifted, and an innocent mother and child were accidentally killed leading to a cover up.

Probyn is initially sceptical of this revelation from a clearly disturbed Jeb. Yet he begins to question the operation. This leads to the dawning of his career, ambassadorship and knighthood being part of the cover up.

After reaching out to the dangerous Crispin, friend and advisor to his Minister, Probyn remains unconvinced by his reassurances. Particularly that Wildfire was a success and Jeb a mere bitter ex-forces drunkard. Instead Probyn decides to meet with Jeb again to put together a formal dossier on Wildfire to take to his former Foreign Office colleagues.

But Jeb does not turn up to his meeting Probyn, strange for a man so passionate for revealing the truth. Probyn instead reaches out to Toby Bell, his replacement as Secretary to the Minister responsible for Wildfire, for help. This is where Toby Bell and Probyn come into contact. The past clashes with the present, with consequences that threaten to get out of control.

Firstly, Jeb is found murdered. This appears a cover up, as a tragic suicide of a former serviceman, rather than the sinister assassination Probyn and Bell fear. In shock, Probyn visits the Foreign Office with his part of the Wildfire dossier including Jeb’s allegations of foul play. This is met with a very cold reception. Along with the threat of an expensive, life ruining and secret internal trial.

Meanwhile Bell allies himself with Probyn’s daughter Emily. They reach out to the former military colleagues of Jeb’s who were also involved in Wildfire. One former comrade of Jeb’s (‘Shorty’) is tracked down, but is actually part of the elusive Crispin’s private security firm.

Convinced he can flip ‘Shorty’ with the memory of Jeb and military honour, Toby meets him. But Bell is quickly abducted and taken to Crispin in his glistening, corporate HQ. Offered a similar deal to Shorty, to be recruited by Crispin at great financial reward for his silence on Wildfire, Toby refuses.

Returning home, Toby is then ambushed and beaten half to death by unidentified goons. Emily Probyn rescue Toby and the pair flee to a internet café. Here Toby emails copies of Kit Probyn’s damning Wildfire dossier to several national newspapers. A deliciously abrupt conclusion hears the sounds of sirens approaching the café.

An interesting aspect of this novel is how it’s two central characters (Kit Probyn and Toby Bell) reflect the author’s own life. Probyn is the retired master in Cornwall seemingly with everything, much like the author now. Bell the young, rising star of the civil service which le Carré saw himself as at an earlier point in his life. As always with le Carré, his excellent fiction mixes deeply with the non-fiction of his life.

Thank you for reading. Is this your favourite le Carré novel or is it another one? Please leave your comment below.

Book review: Project Fear

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Project Fear by Joe Pike

My rating: ★★★★☆

The Basics: A blow by blow account of the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum campaign, focussing on the inner workings of the Better Together side and the effects of the result.

In-depth: Joe Pike’s Project Fear is a fascinating and very readable account of the 2014 referendum campaign. With another referendum on independence being mooted in Scotland it is worthy reminder of the campaign, it’s main events and just how much has changed since and because of it.

Focussing first on the inner workings on the Better Together side, particularly it’s staffing, media strategies and political leadership. The book’s title takes it’s name from the label which was originally self attributed to the No campaign. However this soon became a derogatory term for it’s relentlessly negative campaign based on highlighting the risk, especially economic risk, of voting yes to independence.

The incredibly fast pace of this account, as written by a journalist caught up in the events, is a thrilling insight into the exhausting and relentless democratic process of a major referendum campaign. Individual characters within Scottish Labour make up much of the cast, with the reluctant leader of the campaign Alistair Darling, coming under the most scrutiny.

Some of the books most interesting passages come on the TV debates held between Darling and Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP. Here the preparations of the media and press attaches of the No campaign make for a great read, especially with Pike’s personal insights of who exactly was playing Salmond in the mock preparations for example.

Ultimately, as the books full title documents, the No campaign won – just – but the result had some very divisive effects. The second half looks at the soon realised legacy of the referendum: the near extinction of Scottish Labour at the 2015 General Election. Here the focus of Pike’s account shifts from Darling to Jim Murphy, the Leader of the Scottish wing of the Labour Party tasked with navigating the election. The incessant plotting, infighting and unawareness of just how bad it was going to get makes this second half in fact the more interesting part of the book – but on an admittedly very niche topic.

On the whole this is a highly readable account of a referendum campaign which seems like it was an age ago, given recent events, as well as highly relevant due to the possibilities of a rerun of an independence referendum.

Book review: Call for the Dead

le_carre_call_for_dead_penguinCall for the Dead by John le Carré

My rating: ★★★★☆

There has been some excellent recent news for fans of John le Carré and his greatest character creation George Smiley: a new novel featuring Smiley will be published in late 2017. This seems like the perfect time then for a review of le Carré’s first book, which was also the first of the Smiley books which long ago appeared to have concluded in 1990 with The Secret Pilgrim.

Call for the Dead, published in 1961, takes place in a London in the midst of the Cold War. The plot sees the intelligence officer George Smiley conduct what seems like a courteous and straight forward security interview with a Foreign Office civil servant, Samuel Fennan, who is then found dead the next day, a suspected suicide, at his suburban home.

Shocked into action by this, as well as his nervous boss, Smiley visits Fennan’s home and is racked with guilt upon seeing his widowed wife who demands an explanation about their interview the previous day. It is at this point that the Fennan’s telephone rings, which Smiley answers assuming it is head office for him, only to discover it is a wake up call from the Foreign Office requested by Samuel Fennan the previous day.

Here, the novel receives it’s name and with it Smiley a purpose. He immediately thinks why a man who was apparently contemplating suicide would request a wake up call the next morning? His suspicions of foul play kick start a murder investigation alongside his trusty companion, Inspector Mendel, from the Metropolitan Police.

Without spoiling the plot, Smiley’s forensic approach to the case, alongside practical support from Inspector Mendel and Peter Guillam, another character to appear multiple times in the le Carré canon, leads to some uncomfortable findings surrounding an East German spy ring operating in London, which then mercilessly attempts to cover it’s tracks to Smiley.

One of the main things which stands out from this novel, written and based in the early ’60s, is how different British society was then. Certain turns of phrase are either out dated and no longer in use or today deemed down right offensive. The Second World War also hangs over this book with an imposing and tragic shadow. Most characters have stories and shared histories from that period, with the history of the conflict providing a central plank of Smiley’s discoveries. Reference to the ‘glory years’ of WW2, where Britain still had (declining) power and ultimately a purpose,  are also implicitly present in much of le Carré’s depiction of the British Intelligence Services. They were his employers when he was writing this book, and the depiction is largely implicit but came to influence much of le Carré’s later, more famous work.

What is remarkable is that this was le Carré’s first book and he is still writing as brilliantly as ever in a completely different world in 2017. As mentioned above his new book out this year, which will include Peter Guillam and flashbacks to Smiley, will certainly be a treat and may well hark back to this rather distant history.

Book review: We

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We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

The Basics: In the future dystopian ‘One State’ D-503, the chief engineer on a space programme, begins a journal of his experiences. He soon comes into contact with I-330, a woman who he immediately falls madly in love with. Struggling with uncontrollable emotions D-503 is brought into conflict with the principles of the nightmarish urban society of One State and its mathematical dictates for ‘happiness.’

In-depth: We is often touted as the first great dystopian novel of the 20th century and it’s influence upon the later, and more famous, novels Brave New World and 1984 is not difficult to see. Also the fact that the book was banned upon its completion in 1921 by a fledgling Soviet Union (until the late 1980s) adds to its mythical allure and its satirical and historical value.

We‘s setting is an urban society many centuries in the future where the equalitarian One State has cut it’s self off from the natural world with a walled city of people only identifiable by numbers. Led by ‘the Benefactor,’ a supreme leader ‘elected’ unopposed every year, all citizens wear the same clothes, called unifs, and live in glass buildings where their every moment can be monitored by the state police known as the Bureau of Guardians.

The level of detail Zamyatin imagines in We is astonishing, down to the daily timetables where every hour of the individuals day is dictated by One State. Even sexual intercourse is regulated with individuals having pink tickets which they clock in with their sexual partners at allotted times. Only during this hour is the all out assault on privacy relieved by blinds to cover the glass buildings which house all inhabitants of One State.

D-503 descent into a love fuelled obsession with I-330 brings him into the embrace of a growing revolution within One State. This aims at smashing down the Wall which separates the state from the rest of the world, an Eden like natural wonder full of other human coated in thick hair, and to overthrow the Benefactor.

Some of We‘s most terrifying moments are when D-503’s emotionally instable actions are assigned by One State logic as a symptom of their greatest threat to happiness: possessing a soul. The official solution of One State is a lobotomy of the brain to remove the imagination and any misguided conception of freedom which threatens the happiness of One State’s mathematical logic.

However, even with this, We is no where near as brooding or dark as Orwell’s 1984. The Benefactor is a much more human figure than the omnipresent Big Brother of 1984, even telephoning D-503 at one point demanding him to get to his office. One State’s surveillance, whilst widespread and pervading, does not carry the same malicious threat present on every single page of 1984.

We is also a rather clunky novel, naturally dominated by its arrangement as a diary by the central character, which is sometimes difficult to follow. Its plot is also at times quite muddled with the consequences of some of D-503’s actions often merely disappearing for narrative ease.

Despite this We is above all a fascinating novel for any reader interested in dystopias. It also offers an insight into the thinking behind the twentieth century’s descent into authoritarian dictatorships written just before this history occurred.

What is your favourite dystopian novel? Please leave your comments below.

Book review: John le Carré The Biography

41nopbf0hjl__ac_ul320_sr210320_John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman

My rating: ★★★★★

This book is a unlikely triumph. It sees the life of one of the most famously secretive authors of the last fifty years, John le Carré, documented in extensive detail by the unrelenting biographer Adam Sisman.

It is a warts and all look at David Cornwell’s (his real name) life, which naturally looks at each of his volume of books but also delves into highly personal areas such as his troubled and lonely childhood, extra marital affairs and financial arrangements to avoid large tax payments.

The main figure who dominates Cornwell’s early life is his father, Ronnie, who was a charming, but manipulative, conman regularly in severe financial trouble often fleeing from one part of the country to another to avoid the authorities.

The most insightful element of this biography comes from the tension Cornwell experienced in his public school days between his elite (and in his opinion, abusive) education, which was aimed at upholding the social and moral values of a British upper class still then ruling an Empire, and the underhand and morally dubious lifestyle he’d experienced growing up under his father’s tutelage. For an individual capable of putting on the cloaks of different characters to emerge from this is hardly surprising and these behaviours are presented as the reasoning behind his entry into the world of intelligence and spying.

It is at times easy to forget this is actually about the real life of the author, and not one of his many wonderful, self deceiving plots which his life has so clearly influenced. Sisman drawing of parallels between these Cornwell’s life and art is very insightful for any fan of le Carré’s. His drive to write began when he was working at MI5 where he quickly realised that the world of intelligence was not all it cracked up to be. In his own words:

“I began writing because I was going mad with boredom … not the apathetic, listless kind of boredom that doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, but the screaming, frenetic sort that races round in circles looking for real work and finding none.”

After his early books, written whilst still working at MI5 with their permission to publish, Sisman looks at the worldwide success of le Carré’s most famous novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, and how it utterly changed his life beyond recognition. Fame, wealth and the freedom from a day job gradually led to his estrangement from his wife Ann and a much needed distancing from his overbearing father.

Sisman casts a sceptical eye over the life of a man all too ready to reinvent situations and stories from his own life for dramatic effect. Often Cornwell’s version of events are contrasted to other’s views or, where possible, the facts.

Each book is analysed via the author’s writing process, development of the plot and characters and his surprisingly sensitive reactions to the critical receptions to them. Some of the best parts are little hints to Cornwell’s past in character’s name and habits as well as more substantial analysis such as the men who lie behind characters as famous as George Smiley.

There are also excellent insights into the field work le Carré carries out, when he travels to the setting of the story and essential imagines himself as his lead character to help research and write the book. He first tried this for The Honourable Schoolboy, the second book of his famous Smiley-Karla trilogy, travelling to Hong Kong. There he was put in touch the Washington Post journalist David Greenway and posing as his photographer shadowing around the region researching his lead character Jerry Westerby, a journalist. Assumingly during this period photos taken by Cornwell accompanied Greenway’s pieces in the Post attributed to ‘Janet Leigh Carr’ to which Greenway received an angry letter from his editor saying that he was married and shouldn’t be travelling around Asia with a young female photographer.

What emerges from this biography is a picture of an author who is addicted to writing, quelling his restlessness through it, and blending his own life with his art to dramatic effect. Delving into this most interesting of lives, brilliantly documented by Sisman, is a journey well worthwhile for any le Carré fan.

You can read my reviews of a number of John le Carré novels here. Please leave your comments below.

Book review: Our Game

our-gameOur Game by John le Carré

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: This post contains plot spoilers.

The Basics: Tim Cranmer’s life, of an idyllic retirement winemaking in Somerset, is turned upside down when the love of his life and a spy who he used to ‘run’ in the Cold War disappear. Cranmer’s search for them becomes increasingly desperate and drawn into the dangerous nationalist politics of post-Soviet Russia and the Caucasus.

In-depth: Our Game pits Tim Cranmer, a former intelligence officer of ‘the Office’, in a fraught and brooding chase of the former cold warrior spy Larry Pettifer. Their long supposed friendship, starting at Winchester College and then Oxford University, is revealed to have produced Cranmer’s eventual recruitment of Larry and sees their lives dangerously and confusingly overlap.

When Larry disappears from Bath University, where he had been consigned to retirement from operations after the fall of the Berlin wall, Cranmer receives a late night visit from detectives digging into his whereabouts.

However it not only Larry who has disappeared. Cranmer’s love, the young and beautiful Emma, has also fled with him. Flash backs reveal an unpleasant love triangle where Larry’s eccentric intellectualism attracts the malleable Emma away from the dull practicality of Cranmer. One of the darkest quotes of the book is when Larry explains this by merely stating “You stole my life, so I stole your girl.”

Throwing the police off the scent by pleading ignorance, Cranmer visits his former secret service ‘Office’ to discover that Larry has also disappeared with £37 million of Russian money, in cahoots with a Russian operator he previously deceived on behalf of the Office. This raises misplaced, but uncomfortable, questions for Cranmer about whether he was part of this theft, forcing him into a race against time and authority to get to the bottom of the disappearance.

One of the most intriguing elements of this novel is the fact that although the book is written from the first person perspective of Cranmer, his interpretation of himself is of multiple men and often slips into the third person. The reader feels that the character’s grasp of himself is slipping. This become more pronounced as Cranmer follows Larry’s dangerous footsteps.

The trail leads Cranmer to Bristol, where he identifies Larry and Emma’s abandoned love nest, re-discovering his idealism for downtrodden national rights in the Caucasus. Larry’s theft to fund a radical group of Ossetians rebels in their cause is identified as a punishment for the weak willed West, who refused to intervene or help in this higher cause, as much as for Russia’s brutal history of persecution in the region.

These memories lead Cranmer through a bloody trail via Macclesfield, Paris, Moscow and eventually to the Caucasian mountains. This journey has consequences which detach Cranmer from any possible return to a free or happy life. In Paris he finally acknowledges Emma no longer cares for him and has returned to her previous life, whilst waiting lovingly for Larry to return. However Larry himself is discovered to have been killed as part of a rebellion which leads to Cranmer lament:

“A dead man is the worst enemy alive, I thought. You can’t alter his power over you. You can’t alter what you love or owe. And it’s too late to ask him for his absolution. He has you beaten all ways up.”

It is at this point when Cranmer, with nothing but a vacuum of a life, completes his journey in becoming the man he has been chasing and taking up arms to join the rebellion he has infiltrated. The perplexing question this ending left me was whether this was a journey, to essentially become Larry, Cranmer wanted to make from the beginning?

Please leave your comments below.

Book review: Gorky Park

417fqcppgzl-_sx326_bo1204203200_Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

The Basics: Three frozen bodies, mutilated beyond identification, are found in Gorky Park in central Moscow. Chief Homicide Investigator, Arkady Renko, is handed the case which quickly begins to grow into dangers beyond his comprehension.

In-depth: One of my favourite genres is the last year has been historical fiction. Whether it be full on alternate history, such as the nightmarish rule of Britain by a victorious Nazi Germany, in C. J. Sansom’s wonderfully detailed Dominion, or the violent paranoia of the Soviet Union in Tom Rob Smith’s excellent Child 44 series, such ideas are breeding grounds for great fiction. It was a happy accident then when I stumbled upon Gorky Park, which in all honesty I thought was a new novel, but was actually first published in 1981, as it helped to lay the ground for this type of exhilarating, historical fiction.

Gorky Park sees a beleaguered, chain smoking detective, Arkady Renko, setting out to find the killer behind a brutal triple murder in Moscow’s Gorky Park. It is 1979 and the run-down, paranoid and austere nature of Moscow is offered in frankly amazing detail. As are it’s many brilliant characters. However it is Renko that is the main attraction with his deep personal flaws, including his waning health, rapidly deteriorating marriage and lack of faith in party dogma, which are starkly contrasted with his professional brilliance at his job as a homicide investigator. Think Cracker, but in the Soviet Union in the ’70s.

Without spoiling the plot, Renko’s initial enthusiasm to palm the case off to a notoriously violent rival at the KGB on procedural grounds, is replaced by his increasing obsession with it due to progress in his investigation. The build up of the plot is dark and brooding. Renko is subtly drawn into a dangerous world of institutional rivalry and vested cross border political and economic interests to the detriment of his own personal relationships and safety.

The second part of the novel, which follows the case and abandons the terrifying darkness and loneliness of communist Moscow to move abroad, does admittedly stretch the plot’s creditability almost to breaking point. However the sheer imaginative depth of this novel and its characters is quite something as is, I imagine, is the 1983 film based upon it. That’s now my next to watch.

What is your favourite historical fiction novel? Or how you read any of the other ‘Renko’ novels by Martin Cruz Smith? Please leave your comments below.

Citizen Clem: A biography of Attlee

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The Basics: John Bew’s epic biography of Clement Attlee looks at what drove a shy man from London’s suburbs to transform the Labour Party and post-war Britain.

In-depth: Bew’s brilliant book focusses on Clement Attlee the man and not just the famous, radical 1945-51 Governments he led, which have dominated other historical accounts due to their monumental achievements, including the creation of the NHS and the modern welfare state.

Despite achievements such as these, Attlee was always very reluctant to speak of his personal ideology or belief systems and was a remarkably shy, awkward man with limited public speaking skills. The author therefore notes there is no real legacy of an ‘Attlee-ism,’ stating:

“It is hard to think of another politician who reached such prominence and gave so little away.”

The author takes aim to discover the central ethos which drove Attlee through his long, illustrious and successful life. Bew’s identification of this is, like Attlee himself, rather simple at face value: a strong attachment to patriotism, a desire to improve the health and goodwill of all of the population and an emphasis on citizenship and civic duty in maintaining this.

The methodology behind this book focusses on analysing Attlee’s reading habits at any given time to gain an insight into his thoughts, ideas and actions. This takes us through the patriotism of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, the socialist utopianism of William Morris and H. G. Wells and most intriguingly, during his overseeing of the ending of British imperial rule in India, Attlee’s immersion in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Initially some of the insights into Attlee’s private readings seem a little tenuous, but it is a methodology which Bew persists with due to the innate privacy of Attlee.

These readings take us through his upbringing in a comfortable, middle class home in Putney, through his service in the horrors of the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War, to his induction in Labour Party politics on the streets of Limehouse campaigning against communist agitators and Oswald Mosley’s fascist brownshirts. Attlee’s stint as a junior minister in Ramsey MacDonald’s minority Labour government is also shown as being vital to his eventual success. Although Labour was nearly wiped out in the 1931 election, Attlee survived in his Limehouse seat and took on great responsibility in the parliamentary rump which remained before becoming the party’s leader, undoubtedly due to his rivals underestimating him, in 1935.

Naturally the chapters on the Second World War, and Labour and Attlee’s contribution to the coalition government which led Britain through it, dominate much of this book. It is here where one of the chief criticisms of Attlee identified by Bew feels most tangible: that he was merely a  lucky man caught up in massive historic events which he benefited from being around but did not necessarily influence. Bew convincingly challenges this interpretation head on.

This decision to take Labour into a national government with Churchill at Britain’s hour of need was Attlee’s proudest achievement in his life as a “volunteer, soldier and politician” and one that he saw primarily as a patriotic responsibility, rather than through the narrow gaze of party politics which quickly disappeared in the life and death circumstances of 1940. It was this honest patriotism, as well as the excellent personal and working relationships between Attlee and Churchill during the war, which helped to secure Attlee’s popularity and trustworthiness which became so appealing to the country in 1945.

The chapters of the 1945 election, where Attlee unexpectedly swept away Churchill and the Conservative party, are a real treat. Bew identifies the infamous party election broadcast when Churchill suggested that a Labour government and “state socialism could not be established without some form of Gestapo to enforce it,” and Attlee’s typically calm and measured dismissal of it, as a key deciding factor for the war weary electorate. Bew even cites, “A young conservative supporter called Margaret Thatcher, a student at Somerville College in Oxford, later recalled listening to the nation’s hero and thinking, ‘he’s [Churchill] gone too far’.

The themes which Bew focuses on during Attlee’s radically reforming Governments are the constant infighting within the Labour Party which he expertly managed and nullified, as well as the dire economic circumstances of post-war Britain, memorably described by J. M. Keynes as a ‘financial Dunkirk, through which he still was able to lead genuinely sweeping changes. A key trait of Attlee’s, married to his patriotism and arguably un-socialist like prioritisation of Britain’s national self interest, was his firm attachment to the importance of Anglo-American relations. Interestingly this worked both ways as he was able to secure Britain’s place as a world power, with his incessant lobbying of America to share its nuclear weapons secrets with Britain, as well as constructing a welfare state as a new social contract for Britain’s citizens broadly along the lines of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ for the USA in the 1930s. This moved his Labour Government away from European models of state socialism and communism.

The books ends with a historiographic look at Attlee’s legacy within the Labour Party. The author observes that many in the Party no longer attempt to understand Attlee and his popularity due to a left wing bias or “sneer” against his rather simplistic, but popular, patriotism. Another common gripe, visibly demonstrated in the Party throughout this book, was that he was ‘not left wing enough’ and missed the historic opportunity for a full socialist revolution in England in 1945. Such purists had little time for Attlee’s moderate social democracy. This eerily brings Bew’s account up to the current internal conflicts, regarding a sense of socialist purity or the importance of compromise, within the Labour Party.

What are your favourite books on 20th century British history? Please leave your comments below.

Review: The Silent Deep

cover_jpg_rendition_460_707The Silent Deep: The Royal Navy Submarine Service since 1945 – Peter Hennessy & James Jinks

My rating: ★★★★☆

The  UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent, delivered by four Vanguard-class submarines, is a hot topic that was recently debated and scheduled for renewal by Parliament. This has reopened deeply passionate and dividing debates which centre around the nuclear deterrent’s morality, cost, operational worth and its reflection of Britain’s place in the world. Within today’s increasingly fear laden global security arena these complex debates are afforded an emphatically thorough historical perspective by this behemoth of a book which looks at the history of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service since the Second World War.

The book opens with the authors observing the Royal Navy’s famous “perisher” training course, renowned for it’s low pass rate, for potential Commanding Officers of submarines. It largely consists of war games off of the Scottish coast, where the recruits are pushed to their mental and physical limits by carrying out fictional missions with the main aims to evade capture and survive unnoticed. One memorable passage sees a senior officer, who observes and evaluates the officers performances, recognise the deadly trait of hesitation. His reaction is to send for the chef to bring in a raw steak from the kitchen and suggests the recruit should “eat more red meat” to improve their decision making.

After this humorous introduction the book then moves into its main focus on the history of the U.K. Submarine Service. The biggest shift identified since 1945 is the transfer of responsibility for the UK’s nuclear weapons from the Royal Air Force to the Royal Navy. This was born from the increasingly important role submarines played in WW2 and the subsequent race of the superpowers to develop nuclear powered submarines in the 1950s. This revolutionised them into highly effective weapons able to operate undetected for very long periods of time in the ‘silent deep’ of the oceans.

The so-called ‘Special Relationship’ between the USA and the UK is a key part of this history. In 1958 the head of the Royal Navy, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, secured a bilateral nuclear treaty which saw the US give Britain all of its nuclear submarine technologies as well as the sale of a nuclear reactor kit to Rolls Royce and their customer the Royal Navy. This was achieved by Mountbatten’s courting of the “father of the nuclear US navy” Admiral Hyman Rickover, who was famously rude to his British counterparts, but was ultimately tolerated due to the need for his cooperation for the British to become a nuclear power.

Another common incidence through out this book is that by the time expensive, once cutting edge technology makes it into service it is almost obsolete due to the long term nature of constructing nuclear submarines and their weapons. The lifetimes of the UK’s submarines are planned for decades in the future, but this cycle obviously then has to restart to keep the deterrent credible and crucially for the UK ‘independent.’

One of the most thrilling passages of this book centres on the summit where this independence was stretched to its breaking point. In December 1962 the UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and the youthful US President John F. Kennedy met in Nassau, Bahamas for tense negotiations over the sale of the new Polaris missile system, which enabled nuclear warheads to be stored and fired from submarines, to the UK. Macmillan managed to secure a generous price for Polaris but was met with the American request that the deterrent be placed under the ultimate control of NATO causing great political unease to the British government. After much negotiation and playing with words, brilliantly charted by the authors,  Macmillan secured the last minute qualification which maintained British national control in “severe national emergencies” akin to 1940. British Sovereignty, in a way, was upheld.

After this the book looks at the Cold War and the constant underwater battles with the USSR. A notable anecdote recalls an operation in 1964 where there were strong disagreements between the Foreign Office and the Admiralty about how close patrolling submarines should go to Russian waters. In light of this one officer describes his Commanding Officer, “a man with no respect for the Russians who patrolled as close to the coast as possible preferably with the radio aerial up so he could listen to the test match.” Breathtaking, but hilarious, arrogance in retrospect.

However the Submarine Service become much more covert and through out the 1970s and 80s the warfare evolved into cat and mouse like battles of nerve. The best description of this Cold War is from a former UK submariner:

“Since using even conventional offensive weapons could easily precipitate horrible and uncontrollable geopolitical consequences, undersea warriors measured victory in terms of surveillance, detection and constant monitoring. If you knew your enemy, his vehicle or ship, his location and capability and you could follow or ‘shadow’ him without betraying yourself, you claimed victory by Cold War standards.”

This style of Cold War does however beg the ultimate question are these fantastically expensive machines actually worth the money? The obvious answer to this question is that these weapons deter. It is at times difficult not to come round to this viewpoint under the relentless analysis from the authors and the historical commitment to this principle within the British establishment. However in the Cold War there was an obvious aggressor to deter, the Soviet Union armed to the teeth, but this argument meanders in the latter chapters when such a foe is no longer present.

The history is brought up to the present day. The potential nuclear threats of the 21st century are briefly analysed, with an increasingly hostile Putin-led Russia the main focus, which indicates a prevalence for an effective nuclear deterrent. However this is no overt conclusion on the worth of the deterrent’s renewal but as the authors are historians, and not politicians, this comes with little surprise. The real worth of this book lies in its remarkable levels of detail and breadth of a definitive historical account of Britain’s nuclear deterrent.