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.

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.

Review: The Rent Trap

41IAfQCUzlL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_The Rent Trap: How We Fell Into It And How We Get Out Of It by Rose Walker and Samir Jeraj

My rating: ★★★☆☆

The current London Mayoral election campaigns have unsurprisingly centred around the Capital’s dire housing crisis. This book is a welcome intervention into the debate and focusses on the private rented sector, which has boomed in recent decades to now include some 11 million private renters across the UK.

It explains the reasons and interests driving the sky high rents experienced by so many tenants today and how the interests of landlords are fiercely protected by lobby groups in Parliament. If you’re interested in the intricacies of All Party Parliamentary Groups or Private Members’ Bills, as I strangely am, then these parts are certainly for you.

The picture painted of the private rented sector is a dark one. The simple inability of many to save for a deposit, the upheaval of no fault evictions, the scandal of manufactured letting agents fees as well as the often criminal actions of landlords who do not think many areas of the law apply to them or that their tenants deserve privacy, are all covered in detail. More widely with buy to let mortgages further overheating the property market and therefore pricing out many of every buying their own home, it is now common for tenants to be paying, via their high rents, either the mortgage(s) of their landlords or into their pension, which has the obvious long term affects of denying these assets to younger generations of tenants.

One of this books chief merits, drawn out by its many varying case studies, is the moral case against this current market situation and its social and generational injustices. When interviewed and pushed by the authors over whether they feel the rental arrangements they have are moral or defendable, it is clear the vast majority of landlords are aware of the ridiculous levels of unfairness they are contributing to but quickly choose to ignore it or defend it as merely the way of the market.

This now default viewpoint is dug into with a concise history of post war UK housing policy, which accurately pinpoints the source of many of the market’s problems today as originating from the policies of the Thatcher Governments. These set the market loose from any rent controls, drained councils resources and housing stocks and has led to housing now being seen much like other commodities, as a vehicle to solely make profit, and not to provide safe, fair and secure shelter for human beings. It is clear the authors are uncomfortable with this designation and after reading this book it is difficult not to share these sentiments.

The one drawback of this book is that it doesn’t really seem to offer conclusive answers to the vast problem(s) it outlines. Considering the book’s full title, The Rent Gap: How we fell into it and How we get out it, this is disappointing and the only real alternatives offered are piecemeal initiatives such as cooperative housing, community land trusts and the increasing number of Londoners who choose to live on canal boats on the capital’s many now defunct waterways. However these options provide merely a tiny fraction of housing in the UK compared to full property ownership, the private rented sector or even social housing. They do not seem feasible options for a new fourth sector.

However the lack of answers is not really a criticism of the authors, or the book, but merely a indication of the depth of the problems. Also to be fair the regulation of private rented sectors in Europe, particularly in cities such as Paris and Berlin, is carefully considered and seems to offer the most obvious potential answer. Here tenants are allowed much more time, compared to the remarkably short 6 to 12 months afforded in the UK, to stay in their properties if they have done nothing wrong. However this would appear to require a wider transition from the short term desire for steep profits, which dominates many areas of British society, towards a private rented sector offering a more stable, cheaper and longer term option for tenants.