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Friday 18 July 2014

Review: Helen Rappaport, Four Sisters

There is a global demand - most obviously coming from the USA - for rose-tinted books about Royalty, dead or alive. Some readers want Royal babies (The British are prolific in supplying them) and others want Royal Martyrs - the Romanovs win hands down.

Though it is thoroughly researched  and very readable Helen Rappaport's book does not escape the weaknesses of the genre. To give an example:  the romance between Nicholas and Alexandra risked coming to nothing because of Alexandra's religious scruples and Rappaport writes, "To a forlorn Nicky there seemed an insurmountable gulf between them and he allowed himself to be temporarily distracted by other pretty faces" (page 16). This is saccharine. Nicholas had a mistress from 1890 until his 1894 marriage.She was Mathilde Kschessinskaya (1872 - 1971), a ballerina in St Petersburg who Nicholas met when she was 17. After being dropped by Nicholas, Mathilde took up with two other Romanov Grand Dukes, and had a child with one of them. She lived to a grand old age and wrote her Memoirs. "Pretty faces" is ridiculously coy and designed for the more prudish readers of Royalty biographies.

Again, in chronicling the cosy home life of the family, Rappaport again and again stresses simplicity, frugality, informality - things which come with this genre of writing - so that when, for example, she once mentions the Fabergé eggs which Nicholas presented annually to his wife and mother they simply cannot be integrated into the narrative she has constructed any more than the Royal yachts and railways trains.

Despite - in some ways because of -  its weaknesses, the book successfully chronicles the extraordinary degree of arrogant detachment from reality practised by the last of the Romanovs. They knew very little about the Russia they claimed to own and rule over and even their relationships with the Russian aristocracy were strained and limited. It was the aristocracy who brought them down - Rasputin was murdered by a Grand Duke and a Prince, not by proletarians.

The detachment from reality - maybe half way due to Alexandra's invalidism and Alexey's haemophilia - passed to their daughters in the form of an unworldliness rudely shaken by the First World War. Here it seemed that the two older daughters really did become nurses and did not just pose for photographs.

Among a mass of opinions cited by Rappaport, I was struck by a comment by Prince Wilhelm of Sweden attending the Romanov Tercentenary celebrations in 1913:

The Emperor made restrained greetings to the right and the left without changing expression; it was impossible to detect any enthusiasm from either side. The muzhiks [peasants] mostly stood there staring, a few made the sign of the cross or fell to their knees for the head of the church. It was more awe and curiosity than spontaneous warmth, more dutiful obedience than trust. Subjects kept down rather than free citizens. It was unpleasant, remote and as unlike how things are at home as possible. The unbridgeable gap between the ruler and the people was more notable than ever (page 197)
Sweden still has a Monarchy.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Review: Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

It seems a pity to read a 468 page book and not get a review out of it. But the truth is I only finished it because being unwell kept me at home for a few days and I had nothing better to read. The book is dull. I simply do not understand the three pages of gushing quotations from reviews which preface the book.

There will always be a problem if you set out to chart the lives of half a dozen people, plus bit part characters, over 40 years. It will be very hard to avoid précis as you update readers on what has happened to characters A and B in the five or ten years since they last appeared on your pages. I don't think Wolitzer avoids it. The book is full of précis.

It is also rather full of box ticking. We get Discovering you are gay, clinical depression, HIV/AIDS, autism, feminist theatre, cancer  though we don't get race or guns or divorce and we don't really get poverty (just the squeezed middle classes). It's actually quite a cosy book despite the fact that it axes itself around the themes of youthful aspirations turning into success or failure and envy or jealousy as you see others doing better than yourself.

No. Some of the gags are funny but I think you could find a couple of much better novels to read in the time it took me to plod through this one.

Sunday 6 July 2014

Review: Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends

Ben Macintyre is a very good writer and I have read three of his previous documentary Spy books with pleasure. I also read this one with pleasure and found that it raised interesting questions about both the British Establishment as it was and clearly still is, and about spying in general.

Every modern government feels that it has to spend large amounts of very sloshy money on spying, surveillance and on more active things like black propaganda, provocation, subversion and so on. After all, if They do it then We have to respond in kind. But books like this one raise the question of whether it is all worth it. For every resounding success there is at least one Bay of Pigs failure. Much of the time, spy agencies appear merely to be goading each other, so that their activities create problems which would not otherwise have existed. At worst, it becomes childish rather than glamorous Macintyre's book gives some examples, perhaps unintentionally. Singing songs in nightclubs to annoy your enemies doesn't just happen in the film Casablanca - according to Macintyre, it also happened in real life in Istanbul.

Many years ago (around 1954 I think) Costa Rica decided it could do without an army. The army just kept causing trouble as it did in most Latin American nations,with or without the USA and its criminal CIA inciting that trouble. Since then, Costa Rica has done rather well as a country and is currently doing very well. Maybe it's time for one country to find a way of doing without spying agencies - or at least limiting things to what are basically police operations - finding out enough to stop crimes in their planning stage. In the case of both 9 / 11 USA and 7 / 7 in the UK, a more focussed, less megalomaniac, intelligence agency would probably have pieced together the information which was in fact available to it.

Intelligence disasters are sometimes the result of poor policy decisions by politicians but often they are the result of freelancing by intelligence agencies whose members feel themselves above the Law and certainly above the Politicians.  Russian Premier Nikita Khruschev sailed into Portsmouth Harbour in April 1956 aboard a cracking new Soviet cruiser. The spooks very much wanted to take a look at it but Prime Minister Anthony Eden vetoed that. The spooks went ahead anyway, the Soviets were probably tipped off -  and if so by Philby - and the drunken, unhealthy and superannuated frogman, Lionel Crabb, chosen to take photos of the ship's underwater propellers and so on, never returned to dry land.

Of course, you could say that Eden would say that,wouldn't he? It's called butt covering. The job of the intelligence services is to figure out when a politician's "No" is really his way of saying "Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?"

More generally, politicians probably don't want to know exactly what their intelligence services are getting up to. It makes it easier to deny that they are doing what they are doing.

But in Britain leaving the intelligence services to their own devices meant - over a period of at least 50 years - that they turned themselves into Clubs on the model of Oxford and Cambridge universities. They did what they liked with their money, they employed who they liked - merit not being a particularly important issue - and once you were in the Club you had to do something really extraordinary to get yourself expelled. When Philby was eventually nailed as a Soviet spy, in exchange for a partial confession he was simply allowed to slip away to exile in the Soviet Union. To have put him on trial would have made the Club itself look remarkably casual, cavalier and self-satisfied in the way that it had operated during Philby's decades at the centre of it.

So as I read this book, one of its virtues is that in probing the details and tenor of Philby's relations with his colleagues, it provokes one to think about wider issues. One might, for example, compare how the political and civil service Establishment during and after Philby's era dealt with complaints of criminal activity - sexual abuse of minors in today's newspapers - involving members of their Clubs.

One final thing. It's often said that governments who rely on reports from their diplomats to know what is happening in a particular country would do better to read a good newspaper. The same is true of intelligence reports. Macintyre doesn't really probe it, but it is often unclear whether people in MI5 or MI6 had much grasp of geography or history or current affairs. But there are hints. For example, both American and British intelligence agencies have placed great reliance on emigrés with fairly disastrous results. They have failed to see that emigrés are not always honourable people forced into exile by unpleasant regimes. Some of them are crooks who used regime change as a chance to escape their country and present a new image to the world. Others are bitter and resentful at the loss of power they never deserved to hold. Some simply become absurdly nationalistic to compensate for their loss of a homeland. In all cases, emigrés should be treated with caution. But no one does that and so we still suffer from the Curse of Miami Cubans.