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.

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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.

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.

Book review: Animal Farm

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (1)Animal Farm by George Orwell

My rating: ★★★★★

Warning this post contains plot spoilers.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a striking little novel which fuses an easy to follow short story with a savage political satire of the Russian Revolution and its betrayal by the darker elements of human nature. It charts a farm’s descent from the early hope of a better future, after its animals rebel and overthrow their human overlords, to the encroaching and increasingly perverse rule of the all powerful Napoleon in an unnervingly calm, step-by-step plot. With it’s benefit of (unstated) historical hindsight, alongside the artistic use of animals to represent historical individuals, Orwell’s writing demonstrates a brooding authority which marks the self-serving and tragic implications of each plot development as both frighteningly stark and desperately out of the reader’s control.

Many of the animals represent different social institutions, groups or individuals; Mr Jones is the careless, cruel and often drunk man who initially owns the farm who represents the bourgeois enemy of the suffering proletariat that is the animals; Moses, the tamed raven of Mr Jones, represents the Church, with his persuasive, comforting and distracting tale of a country called “Sugarcandy Mountain” in the sky where all animals go to when they die and live in eternal bliss. Two other characters who stand out are Boxer; an immensely strong and unquestioning horse committed wholeheartedly to following his revolutionary leaders, and Squealer; a clever pig who has such a talented way with words that he “could turn black into white,” who acts as the emergent regime’s mouthpiece spewing its increasingly contradictory propaganda.

After overthrowing Mr Jones the animals, led by the pigs who learn to read and write, decree the seven commandments of the ideology of Animalism on the barn wall to which all agree. Attention is then quickly turned to the labour of the hay harvest but it is just before this when the first tangible chink in the armour of what Orwell calls a ‘fairy story’ appears. Before the hard labour of harvest is carried out by the animals, the cows are milked by the pigs which produces buckets full of creamy, tasty looking milk to which the animals eyes lustily fall aware that all farm produce now belongs to all animals equally. However Napoleon, one of the cleverest pigs, tells the animals to forget the milk for now and to concentrate on the vital work of the harvest. However, “when they came back in the evening it was noticed that the milk had disappeared.”

From this dark hint at the future the animals, led by the naturally more intelligent pigs, proceed to run the farm on their terms rather than under the whim of man. However a rivalry between two of the more intelligent pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, rapidly emerges. This is largely based on their very different natures; Napoleon is used to get his own way and adept at quietly gathering support, whilst Snowball is more expressive of his ideas and a great public speaker who is able to eloquently persuade the other animals at public debates. The two also constantly oppose each other’s ideas.

This rivalry undoubtedly represents an analogy of the great power struggle in post revolution, post-Lenin USSR between Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. One particularly powerful parallel which stood out to me was the debate around the defence of the farm. Napoleon suggests the animals should be trained in the use of weapons to strengthen their own farm against any human attackers, compared to Snowball’s preference to send pigeon messengers to other farms to spread the word of Animalism to help create unrest and possible rebellion, thereby reducing the amount of enemies. This broadly follows the rival ideas of Stalin’s Socialism in One Country policy which prioritised the internal strengthening of the Soviet Union compared with Trotsky’s ideas of continual international revolution.

Snowball is chased and banished from the farm with Napoleon seizing control and quickly installing fear into the animals. The maxim that Napoleon can never be wrong is adopted and the collective history of the farm’s rebellion is also changed to reduce the prominence of Snowball. Orwell then depicts every stage of the Farm’s descent into a paranoid, violent dictatorship led by the all powerful Napoleon. There are false propaganda campaigns, absurdly fabricated production statistics but yet still famine, show trial purges of former animal allies and blatant compromises of the previous principles of Animalism. Primarily all of these principles are broken but the most obvious are the killing of animals by other animals as well as the emergence of an unequal allocation of labour. This is between most animals having to work like slaves whilst starving and the pigs who very do little other than feast and increasingly live like their former human masters.

The book ends in dramatic and tragic fashion. The remaining ‘lower animals’ take a peek into the former home of Mr Jones where the pigs now live. After inviting the neighbouring human farm owners around to feast the animals outside overhear the pigs discuss their joint interests. Animalism is truly dead with the interests of the privileged few reinforced and the pigs; who sit, talk and drink like their former human enemies, and in fact rule more harshly; are impossible to tell apart from the humans during their heated final words during drunken a card game.

Best Quote: It may be a cliché but it’s hard to look beyond the infamous: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

Have you ever read Animal Farm or any other novels by George Orwell? If so, please leave your comments below.