Monday, 17 October 2016

Review: Graeme Macrae Burnet, His Bloody Project

Waterstones had a table with Booker Prize Shortlist books and I bought this one for no other reason than that it has achieved publicity because it was brought out by a small publisher based in Scotland rather than thwacked on the table under some imprint of an international conglomerate media company - the sort of company which reckons it ought to be able to stitch up the Booker any time (look at some of the past winners!) 

I read the 280 pages in a day, mostly without difficulty once I had got past the opening difficulty. Within a minute of beginning to read, I was thinking Pierre Riviere - the real-life 19th century French rural murderer who wrote a Memoir of his own deeds (I, Pierre Riviere, having slaughtered my mother, my sister and my brother ...  and wishing to make known the motives etc). It's true that Burnet briefly acknowledges the book at the end of a list (p 281), but the debt to Michel Foucault's work goes quite deep since the structure of this book in effect mirrors Foucault's presentation of the dossier on the Riviere case. I think that may cause a problem for the Booker jury. Macrae has had a lot of his work done for him.

But I got past this. The best part of the book is undoubtedly The Account of Roderick Macrae which takes up 137 pages of the 280 - so, a half. Here the demand on the author is that he proceed confidently in his narrator's voice and avoid the main pitfalls of such writing, which are anachronism and pastiche. Burnet opts for a fairly neutral prose which does not constantly try to evoke 19th century rural Scotland - he makes do with a small specialised vocabulary to give period flavour and provides a Glossary to it - and he avoids obvious anachronism. Once he uses "hobby" where I would have thought "pastime" and no doubt there are others like that but nothing dreadful.

The main problem (and this one also for the Booker jury) is that he does not quite bring off the uncertainty he creates around Macrae's motivation, nor does that uncertainty map straightforwardly onto the official theme of criminal insanity. In brief, Macrae committed three murders, one of them also involving a violent sexual assault - the medical evidence at pages 156 - 57 - on a girl (or the body of a dead girl) who has spurned him. That is nowhere mentioned in his own Account, which is to that extent either dishonest or obscured by an insane degree of denial. Nor does this possible motivation drive the narrative of the Trial until one witness alights on the possibility. There is a more complex narrative implied than the surface one but though it is fairly constantly hinted at it doesn't really get structured enough to give us a chance to engage with it.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Review: John le Carre, The Pigeon Tunnel

I started into this three hundred page book of thirty eight mainly short chapters just as I was finalising a book of twenty six short chapters which will take up a couple of hundred pages, next year with any luck. I am glad I did not read it earlier. The author knows how to tell a good story and tell it splendidly. Some of the stories are tragic, some are hilarious. Some of the stories exude a sense of “I’m old. Why not? Who cares? They're dead. So here goes …”  If I had read them sooner, I would have succumbed to last-minute influence.

My twenty six chapters don’t include a narrative of the only occasion (to my knowledge) when anyone tried to recruit me to British Intelligence. In 1972 I had found myself a job teaching Liberal Studies to day release apprentices – bricklayers, plumbers, panel beaters – in Devon. I was bent on subversion but in reality was simply making a mess of it and I knew I had to try to give some better direction to my life. I was twenty five now. So as a long shot, I booked in to talk to the Careers Adviser at the University of Exeter. I don’t know how I blagged that, since I had not studied there. But anyway, he interviewed me at some length, appeared to think for a bit, and then asked me if I had time to take an IQ test – he may have called it something else but to me he was just asking me to re-sit the 11+. I had no qualms about doing that and happily filled in the test papers behind a closed door, emerging to hand them over to my interviewer. He scored them at his desk and then drew out from a drawer a little brochure for GCHQ. Did I know what it was? Would I perhaps like to read it and think about it?

I was embarrassed; I felt sorry for him. Though I most definitely over-rated the non-existent threat I posed to National Security, I was probably not far off in thinking that it was as if he was proposing a police career to an amateur criminal, not the career kind of criminal for whom it would be appropriate. I was painfully reminded of the girlfriend who desperately wanted to be a real spy and who regarded me as one of the main liabilities to her chances of success; so she lied me out of existence, replacing me with the Double (who she was also sleeping with). And that was four years ago, since when some of my unsuitable friends had become even more unsuitable. I would have been curious to find out more about GCHQ but felt they would surely turn me away on first profiling and this decent man who had taken time out to interview me would be made to look a bit of a fool. So I politely declined.

Now if you liked that little bit of story you will surely like John le CarrĂ©’s book a whole lot more because it is full of much stranger encounters with much larger-than-life characters, most of them famous in their own right. He meets them all, if we are to believe him and I’m not sure I do, in the course of doing “research” for his next novel. But he does take a lot of personal risks, does do an awful lot of research, and why would you be doing that unless you were a spy? And don’t tell me it’s all about spying for your novels.

What I like a lot about le Carré is his politics, which are not easy to pigeon-hole. He is part humanist, part socialist and part what is (or was) occasionally called Tory Anarchist, an expression you will understand if you align it with Manic Depressive or as we are now supposed to call it, Bi-polar.

This is a splendid book, very easy to read, and full of surprises and strong feelings. (And I will let you into a secret: I don’t usually write sentences like that on this Blog).

In chapter 35, Carre tells a story dated to 1967 in which he helps to secure "leave to remain" in the UK for a famous Czech actor who has left Czechoslovakia legally but who wishes not to return and equally not to defect or claim political asylum, which would result in retaliation against the friends and family he has left behind. Carre taps a few friends for help and has soon got a polite letter into the hands of the Labour Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins,  and the rest is a history which Carre is able to narrate.

In the summer of 1967, aged nineteen, I was Chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club once a purely party outfit but now less so - my own Labour Party membership, acquired at the age of 16 had lapsed in 1966. In my capacity as Chairman (I think) I was asked to a house in north Oxford and introduced to a Czech student, a boy I guess around my own age, living in a cupboard-sized room with a girl who may or may not have been Czech but who does not figure in the rest of the story. I forget who asked me to visit or what was said, but  I was asked to help the boy stay in the UK and if I had to say now why he wanted to stay then I am prompted to say that he had done something political back home which put him at risk if he returned. But really I have forgotten, and maybe he just wanted to stay with the girl. Whether he had come out on a visa or clandestinely, I do not know. My effort to help consisted in setting up a Sunday morning meeting at the home of a Labour MP who lived locally, Robert Maxwell then resident in Headington Hall on the estate which housed his Pergamon Press publishing company. How I achieved this, I don't now know - this is of course before mobile phones and emails.Nor was I one of Maxwell's constituents - the voting age was still 21 and Maxwell was in any case MP for Buckingham.

We went along and I recall a grand reception hall with a harp on display. Then we were taken into a dining room with a vast and beautifully polished table. The boy sat on one side, me on the other, and Robert Maxwell at the top of the table. The boy's English was not very good and Maxwell soon turned to Czech and appeared to question him quite forcefully and at some length. At the end, Maxwell turned to me and explained that he had publishing contracts in Czechoslovakia and that he was afraid that the boy might be a provocateur, hence the questioning. Whether any promises were made, I don't recall and as to what happened next, I don't recall that either. That's the problem with trying to remember things fifty years later, at least for me it is.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Review: Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution, Petrograd 1917

Living capital cities are always full of foreigners and always have been. Occasionally, a sclerotic regime has tried to keep them out – of Lhasa, for example – but most regimes need them as diplomats, bankers, businessmen, engineers, skilled technicians, doctors, translators, chefs, nannies, tutors, entertainers …

St Petersburg and Petrograd (as it was from 1914) was full of foreigners – indeed, bringing in foreigners had been government policy from the time of Peter the Great. All that the outbreak of World War One did was to empty the city of Germans (except for the spies) and replenish their ranks with additional Allied personnel. So when Petrograd led Russia into Revolution, not just once but twice in 1917, there were plenty of foreigners around to observe what went on and Helen Rappaport bases herself on the records left by a relatively small cast of American, British and French foreigners in Petrograd. She has produced a highly readable book though rather unbalanced. Foreigners from neutral countries – and there were many in the First World War including Russia’s near- neighbours Denmark and Sweden – were well-represented in Russia working for Red Cross or similar relief organisations and they may have had a different perspective on events in Russia to those involved in the Allied cause. There were also at least some more working class foreigners than those to be found here. Rappaport offers a view from the middle and upper classes.

She has researched thoroughly and I think that her narrative of the February Revolution which brought down the unloved and unmourned Romanovs is very strong. For those at the time this was the Revolution and what came after in October was a coup.

But her lack of sympathy for the Bolsheviks does lead to some carelessness. She produces “property is theft” as a “favourite Marxist dictum” (page 308) when of course it is the catch-phrase of a nineteenth century French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Lenin in 1917 did not speak of property as theft but urged the expropriation of the expropriators using the more striking phrase “Loot the looters!” In an economy and administration which had literally ground to a halt, the call to loot the looters was about the only means available to the government to bring about any kind of redistribution of wealth, whether from landlord to peasant or private owner to state. Even then, it could not solve the problem of hunger which bulks large in Rappaport’s narrative. The Romanovs could not feed Petrograd, the Provisional Government could not, nor could the Bolsheviks. Many starved and between 1917 – 21 the population plunged as those who could, left.

Again, she makes another small slip, saying that the Bolsheviks finally adopted the Western calendar on 13 February 1918, instantly adding 13 days (page 326). In fact, in Bolshevik controlled areas, 31 January 1918 was followed by 14 February which would otherwise have been 1 February. I have a postcard from a Danish traveller in Siberia writing home on the 14th to say cheerfully that for the first time it’s the same date in both Russia and Denmark.

I do think there is more material around than Rappaport has discovered and she recognises this in soliciting access to fresh sources (page 340). There is, for example, material written on the back of postcards  since Russia’s postal service did function right through 1917 almost without interruption – even in Petrograd and even if unreliable. Lots of mail did not arrive at its destination and  lots was delayed. Between the collapse of Imperial mail censorship and the imposition of Bolshevik censorship, there was a space in which people probably felt much freer to write about what they saw and what they were thinking, though the legacy of censorship probably still cast its shadow