This is a great year for conspiracists – from the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy to the constant dribble (and occasional torrent) of government surveillance revelations. It’s all happening. So i’ve been trying to get my head around the whole Kennedy thing. A few years back, I read the seminal bio by Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life, which is the best place to start (beautifully written, brilliant insights). But have just finished Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days which is a week by week account of those final months of his life and presidency. Tragedy is a word much diluted by overuse and misuse – Read more
I’m trying to understand power – what it means, how it’s wielded, how it affects us. Big topic. But I’m increasingly convinced that we can’t understand the culture of suspicion without grasping the power of power (and its abuses).
This has drawn me to someone who has been a bit of a hero, but whose writings I’d only dipped into. Reading Václav Havel‘s masterly and vital 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless has blown me away. Written in the dark days of Czechoslovak communism (only 10 years after the false dawn of the Prague Spring), it is a profound analysis of what it was like to live under a regime built entirely on lies. The only response, the only subversion of the regime, therefore, is to live in truth. Read more
Some readers will know that my current obsessions are conspiracies and suspicions. One of these days, these may coalesce into something substantial. But that feels a long way off at the moment. Ho hum. But for now, if you want some brilliant ripostes to those who suck up every conspiracy theory going, then my suggestions are twofold:
- Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest David Aaronovitch’s superb Voodoo Histories, reviewed here some months back.
- Watch, chuckle and take very seriously indeed these little gems from the wondrous archive of Mitchell & Webb.
The proverbial ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ could have been minted especially for Lev Mishchenko, one half of the extraordinary couple at the heart of Orlando Figes’ Just Send Me Word. Before completing his science studies in Moscow, he was whisked away to the Nazi front. Soon after, he was captured and spent considerable time as a German POW. As a German-speaker, he was able to make himself useful – though he resolutely refused to become a German spy. That wasn’t enough to prevent him from being convicted as one on his release – for which his sentence was death, commuted to 10 years hard labour in Siberia. Read more
One of power’s cruel ironies is that after craving it for years, its attainment brings a deeply bitter (if addictive) taste. At the heart of the problem is that deep sense of isolation that comes of sitting at the top of the tree. No one can truly understand what it feels like… apart from one’s predecessors. This is the subject of a gripping new take on the US Presidency, Gibbs and Duffy’s The Presidents Club (surely there needs to be an apostrophe in there somewhere!?). There is an irritating proliferation of books about all 44 White House inhabitants, but this is a genuinely interesting addition. Read more
So you think you can remember stuff? Sure we all have trouble remembering names and details – but most of the time, we assume we have an ability to grasp and retain the basic details of our own experiences. But as the great composer Shostakovich mournfully observed towards the end of his traumatic and tragic life, “memory slips through one’s fingers like sand.” It’s remarkable how certain we can become of inaccuracies and even complete fabrications. Read more
It is not just the victims of imperialism who easily identify its sins and blindspots. Those who have wielded and then lost empires are quick to spot the parallels in others’. Perhaps that was partly why Graham Greene was such a caustic critic of what he perceived as the twentieth century’s new imperialist incarnation: the United States. Of course Greene had strong left-wing sympathies and was openly anti-American, which provided convenient filters by which the right could ignore his perspectives. It’s no surprise that he was under FBI surveillance from the 1955 publishing of The Quiet American until his death in 1991. Read more
This is a mildly unserious combination of Q’s Espionage festival and Friday Fun. But London W1 is a spy-historian’s paradise – there are so many spots around here that saw Cold War duty (and the KGB certainly knew their way around). For a start, the formal gardens of Regent’s Park were regular rendezvous points for Cambridge Spies Kim Philby and Donald Maclean with their KGB handlers. But there’s another couple of connections that are even closer to home. Read more
I don’t cry in movies. Sometimes I’d quite like to. But that’s a different story. I just don’t. Usually. But one of the greatest films of recent years (and that is no hyperbole) made me weep: The Lives of Others. The scene in question is one that affected many other friends similarly. It is the moment when the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, eavesdrops on the playwright Georg Dreyman playing a piano piece given to him by an old friend driven to suicide by being blackballed by the East German officialdom. Read more
I was in fear and trembling before watching this movie. Not because of any potential hide-behind-the-sofa moments – but because I so wanted the film to succeed, but feared it would fail spectacularly. For the BBC series with Alec Guinness as George Smiley is one that i’ve watched countless times. And it never ceases to surprise and thrill. Even though cinematically the look and feel seems very dated, the production doesn’t age. So when I heard about the new film, my heart groaned slightly. But fortunately, I really shouldn’t have worried. This film is a triumph. Read more
BBC Security Correspondent, Gordon Corera‘s new book, The Art of Betrayal – Life and Death in the British Secret Service covers ground that will be familiar to all students of the Cold War and spy fiction fans. But he does so in a very readable, engaging but authoritative way. The British Secret Service was in some ways one of the last relics of British imperial glory, with an ability to strut across the world stage despite other aspects of British influence declining. Read more
I was very struck by this fascinating article (“Building Blocks” from the latest Royal Academy magazine) about post-revolution architecture and art in the Soviet Union. Never having visited Russia itself (despite having travelled fairly extensively through its former cold war satellites), my presumption was that architecture in that era was full of monolithic, brutalising and depersonalised buildings. But it seems was that this was primarily the result of Stalinist totalitarianism and did not characterise the confidence of the brand new revolutionary state that held (to some extent) its ideals intact. Read more
It was one of the most disturbing but iconic photographs of the Vietnam War. Long before the virtual world made such things even conceivable, it was an image that quickly went viral, via newspapers and magazines. Perceptions of the conflict were never quite the same again.
The news from Norway has defied words. Senseless, mindless, pointless; it is cruel, irrational evil. And supposedly in the name of Christ. Sickening.
I always resist to tweet or post about every event or topical twist and turn. I’m just not that kind of blogger, I guess. Read more
Tales from Spandau didn’t quite match the expectations I had of it from various reviews. I felt that what it set out to do could have been dealt with in perhaps half the space. Nevertheless, it is grimly fascinating to read of the Cold War shenanigans that went on account of the 7 Nazi War criminals imprisoned at Spandau. Read more
I’ve just found this in my drafts box having obviously never posted it. So better late than never…
A blind Bulgarian chemist sits alone in his flat, sweltering in the Sofia summer heat. As he approaches his 100th birthday, his still sighted mind’s eye inevitably ranges over a 20th century that brought constant revolution, both to him and to Bulgaria. He is Ulrich, Read more
Having come up with a couple of other similar lists for Lars Dahle’s online culture project (20 Questions for Novels & 12 Questions for Albums), here is the latest, on one of my personal passions: history writing. Popular history books are big business. Which means that lots of people must be reading them… Which means they are definitely worth approaching with considerably more care and attention than many give them…
Having quoted a rather light-hearted bit from this excellent compilation of interviews, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things John Le Carré has said over the years about how he goes about his work, especially because of his insights into how and why narrative works (which thus helps us to engage with narratives of any sort). I’m particularly intrigued Read more