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.

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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.

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.

Book review: A Small Town in Germany

9780141196381A Small Town in Germany – John le Carré

My rating: ★★★★☆

Warning: this review contains plot spoilers.

I purchased this book in a small craft fair in St Ives of Cornwall last week. It revolves around the British Embassy in Bonn in West Germany, the ‘Small Town’ of the title, in the late 1960s.

An ailing British Government are desperate to join the Common Market in Europe but due to hostility from France are overly reliant on Germany, as their only European ally, to support their membership. Sound familiar? This fictitious context struck me as strikingly similar to what the UK’s near future could soon look like after the recent EU referendum result.

However this novel was published in 1968 with le Carré firmly on his home turf of the Cold War. It sees a junior Embassy staff member, Leo Harting, go missing with a horde of files containing some of the British Government’s dearest secrets at a time of crucial Foreign Office negotiations in Brussels. Keen to prevent any harm to this Brussels bid, London sends Alan Turner to Bonn to investigate where Harting and the crucial files have got to.

His investigations initially find the Embassy and it’s daily, diplomatic life as one of dour incompetence. However through his amusingly indelicate questioning style Turner begins to build a picture of Harting as a man who slowly weeded his way into positions of undeserved trust, often through romance with female staff or even the wive’s of his male colleagues. Turner also begins to see traits of himself in the missing Harting; a man with a strong, and sometimes destructive, desire for the truth. One character describes Turner as “a man who would pull down a forest to find an acorn.”

Throughout Turner witnesses the civil unrest wrought by a German nationalist politician called Karfeld. As the fast rising Opposition leader Karfeld’s emotive speeches generate an atmosphere of violent student led protests across Germany with some uncomfortable parallels to its dark, recent past. Powerful posters of Karfeld’s populist, anti-British and quasi neo-Nazi slogans embellish Turner’s investigation, which runs against the dual clocks of an impending protest march in Bonn and the upcoming British bid in Brussels.

The search sees Turner discover the missing files and Harting’s noble aim to use them to reveal the true past of Karfeld before he gets into power. Karfeld’s past as a German war hero in Stalingrad is actually shown by British files as a cover up to hide his involvement in horrifying medical experiments during the Holocaust.

As the most frightening element of this novel, this resurgence of neo-Nazism is only matched by the ugly and complete moral flexibility of the British Embassy leaders. Despite his assurances to only want to help Turner find Harting the Embassy Head, Rawley Bradfield, is actually less than eager for Harting’s findings to find oxygen. This comes solely down to his cynical hedging of bets; as Karfeld is viewed not only as a potential future partner to be on the right side of, but also for the short term goal of not rocking the boat and upsetting the German intelligence services with Britain relying heavily on their support in their European application.

This dark conclusion builds on a common theme in le Carre’s novels which paints the world of spying as not a glamorous Bond-like jaunt, but rather a truly dangerous world of cold and unpleasant realities and if need be betrayal. Characters in this book with any professional/career success in this world of spying often carry burdens of a failure in many parts of their private lives, particularly relationships.

Overall this novel contains a surprisingly fresh story from le Carre’s early canon, especially as it was published in between the more famous Cold War thrillers The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. It is a foreboding tale with its conclusion, the fate of the elusive Harting, hanging precariously in the balance until the final pages. Because of this it is a natural page turner which grips your attention from first to last.

Best Quote: ‘Then why look for him?’ – Jenny

‘Why not? That’s how we spend our lives, isn’t it? Looking for people we’ll never find.’ – Turner

Have you read this novel or any other of John le Carré’s? What did you think of it? Please leave your comments below.

Review: Stalin’s Englishman

stalin copy-xlargeMy rating: ★★★☆☆

The Basics: A biography of Guy Burgess, a central member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring of the mid 20th century. Lownie charts Burgess’ education at Eton and Cambridge and recruitment as a spy for the Soviet Union, through his turbulent career at the BBC, Parliament, the Foreign Office and eventually his flight and lonely exile in the Soviet Union.

In-depth: The title immediately grabbed my attention, although I found it a little misleading as there was actually no personal meeting(s) between Stalin and Guy Burgess as the title hinted at some sense of relationship which I naively grasped to.

Overall Lownie’s account is entertaining as it’s subject was on the surface such a extravagant character. Highly intelligent, charming, often visibly drunk and a homosexual sex addict, Burgess certainly generated a lot of private anecdotes and correspondence which form the backbone of this book.

One of the best is a delightful passage where the careless and presumably drunk Burgess meets his Moscow Centre contact in a London pub to share highly sensitive documents in 1945. Burgess dropped the documents on the floor of the pub, stuffed the dirty papers back into his suitcase and tied it up with string only to drop them again in front of his contact in the lavatory.

However, like the man himself, this book largely centres around English high society gossip about him and whilst his career was certainly interesting in how much of the British Establishment he managed to infiltrate and report back to his Communist masters, very little is dedicated to the most interesting question of why he decided to betray his country. Naturally this question has dominated most accounts of the Cambridge spy circle but seems a little lost in this one which prefers to focus on slightly over emphasising Burgess’ centrality to world events instead.

Indeed some of the most interesting passages of the book are on Burgess’ elite education in England, which with the benefit of hindsight are able to highlight many of the, at the time seemingly innocent, political experimentations with arguments from the Left. It was from this social background and the many connections it afforded Burgess that his destiny was formed. The sheer wealth of the powerful individuals he met, and charmed, is nothing short of breathtaking and includes Winston Churchill, George Orwell, John Maynard Keynes and Isaiah Berlin.

The national scandal of Burgess and Maclean’s fleeing from Britain to the USSR in 1951 is also well sketched out by Lownie. Also Burgess’ exile in Soviet Russia is made out to be just as it was, largely unpleasant for a man who loved the theories of communism but found little comfort in its everyday life or the people who were striving to achieve it. The penultimate chapter is entitled by a Burgess quote of ‘I’m a communist, of course, but I’m a British communist, and I hate Russia!’

It appears Burgess was a highly intelligent, both intellectually and socially, individual who was desperately looking for a higher cause to be able to work towards or achieve. Growing up in the 1930s, before the crimes of Stalinism became widely documented/admitted, he found solace in Communism which satisfied an almost quasi religious desire for a (preferably secret) mission to drive his life. It appears Burgess and his Cambridge spy allies genuinely believed the world was going the way of international-Soviet led communism and wanted to be on the winning side away from the declining British Empire.

Overall Burgess’ life was almost ironically tragic. After betraying his country he ended up living out an existence which was far from the career and social opportunities afforded to him by London and an England he soon longed for again. Expecting a hero’s welcome in Moscow he was instead met with a distinct distancing from power by the authorities and constant surveillance. Towards the end of his life Burgess admitted “My life ended when I left London.”

Perhaps this was fitting for a man whose attitudes to almost every institution of the British establishment was merely that it was there for his convenience and (ab)use. He wasted a life on what now seems, with the benefit of hindsight away from the great struggles of the Second World War and the Cold War, for not all that much.