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Tuesday 28 April 2015

Review: William Waldegrave, A Different Kind of Weather

I do not normally buy politicians' Memoirs - nor do many people, it seems, since most Memoirs end up fairly rapidly remaindered. The cover and the title of this book are economical with the fact that it's a politician's Memoir. But I was not misled - I bought the book because I knew William Waldegrave a bit in the 1960s, through the Oxford Union, and liked him. But I did hesitate - I guessed that the book might make me think about things I would rather not think too much about. In this I was right.

Life isn't fair. I read Waldegrave's book immediately after re-reading Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, as fine a book now as when I first read it on publication in 1989. It's a wonderful book in part because it deals with things we all have to face - or find elaborate ways of evading: life not turning out the way we hoped or imagined, realisation of our own past mistakes as a cause of present unhappiness, life's unfairness striking us when we least expected or deserved it.

In the way it tries to engage with those things, Waldegrave's book is rather brave. The author is still an active paid-up member of the Establishment: member of the Privy Council and the House of Lords, Fellow of All Souls, Provost of Eton ... and he has a family and many friends and colleagues in public life who will read his book. But he tries to focus on aspects of a public career which would often enough be kept off the page. True, there are silences - you can't have the Provost of Eton going on too much about youthful sex, drugs and rock 'n'roll. And he is quiet about God and the Queen - the latter, not because of Doubts, but because his family has long been closely connected to the Windsors. As President of the Oxford Union in 1968, Waldegrave was well-placed to achieve the coup of bringing The Queen to a Union debate: there is a photo of the occasion in the book. I was one of the debaters, though perhaps in case I made Socialist trouble, I was put on in the second half, by which time Her Majesty would have left for home:

Click on Image to Enlarge

William Waldegrave was born in 1946, into a loving family which just happened to belong to that (small?) part of the English landed aristocracy which goes back centuries, is connected to everyone who matters, values culture and education, and has a very long tradition of public service. Life's unfairness: the unmerited advantage of a dozen silver spoons,even if of a now-obsolete minting:

Noblesse oblige is ridiculed now; but in the society we have created, which is even less equal than that of my childhood in terms of the distribution of wealth, no slogan exists to shame the rich into any semblance of solidarity with the poor (page 43)
So much for the "Big Society" of posh boys who don't know the price of a pint of milk. (Lord Waldegrave surely does know; his farms sell it).

There are other moments when Waldegrave rounds on something you would not expect:

Sentimentality about how the ultimate instruments of state power - soldiers, police - act in reality is a dangerous thing (page 84)
- this after being knocked unconscious by an American cop. And again, in relation to the episode which hit him most with life's unfairness:

It is wrong to commit the state to the support of the arms trade. It is wrong that the Ministry of Defence is a promotional arm of British Aerospace and other arms manufacturers, and that the Department of Trade backs up MoD in a perpetual joint campaign to promote the export of weapons (page 246)
Mr Blair? Mr Cameron?

Elsewhere, there is some partiality - he blusters about the sleaze and incompetence of the Labour Party, as if they invented the selling of peerages and the family silver (the latter Harold Macmillan's phrase for state assets -  Waldegrave admired Macmillan but worked for Thatcher). Though there are plaudits for the Civil Service, there is never a mention of the National Audit Office which has spent decades documenting the waste of public money by governments of both colours.

He blusters about Communism, not that what he says is untrue but that it feels a bit forced. And it made me recall a fine example of the freedom of action which comes with being patrician and not merely posh.

In the summer of 1968, I stood as the left wing candidate for the Presidency of the Oxford Union, opposing the liberal-with-a-small-c Ian Glick. We debated the motion, "That the Politics of Karl Marx should be consigned to Highgate Cemetery". The voting after the debate was a dead heat, leaving Waldegrave - the then President and also a recent President of the Oxford University Conservative Association- with the casting vote. He plumped for Marx, which I thought generous of him. Of course, there was still the actual ballot for President to come and I lost that.

I never regretted losing. Though I had been five times an elected member of the Standing Committee of the Union my candidature was half-hearted - I didn't canvas - and I wouldn't have done a good job. It was a Prize I was relieved to miss out on.

As the youngest of seven children, Waldegrave had the inevitable experience of always trying to catch up with older siblings. Why can't I win the prizes? is almost a smallest child's lament. His precociousness helped him to do so, both at Eton and later. He got a Congratulatory First from Oxford -  the Examiners wrote you a brief letter of congratulation, something they did for the three or four with the best marks out of the hundreds of candidates; he won University academic prizes. I did both of those things too, but as an only child escaping an awful background.

His party political career spanned the years 1979 - 1997; I settled into a University post at Sussex for exactly the same period. He was turfed out by the electors of Bristol and - after the harrowing experience of the Arms for Iraq affair, which sabotaged his career and has clearly deeply troubled him - decided to change course. Dissatisfied with university life, and knocked back by a bad divorce, I took early retirement at the earliest possible date, my 50th birthday.

My sense of him is that though he desperately wanted to climb to the top of the greasy pole of politics, his character was wrong for it. I have no sense of a killer instinct, of ruthlessness, of the kind of roughness which, say, Norman Tebbit shows here (page 203). There is charisma but not machismo. He's a decent, kind and thoughtful person who would - as he himself says - like to find a compromise if one can be found. Unlike Ted Heath or, say, David Miliband,  he isn't a bad loser. This book is an honest exploration, an unusual exploration, trying to make sense of the kind of man he was and is and ending up finding the answer in T S Eliot -  it's the Shadow falling between thought and deed (the quote is at page 267)

Last word to Kazuo Ishiguro: his lead character - Lord Darlington's butler, Stevens - speaking as the lights go on at Weymouth Pier:

...for a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to [ my companion's] advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?

Saturday 25 April 2015

Review: Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

Twenty or thirty years ago in England, the Arts Council put up a prize for a literary work written under the influence of drugs. It was rather spoilt by people claiming "Aspirin". Anyway, that occurred to me when I read (page vii of the Introduction) that this novel was written in 1933 on "two bottles of wine per day" which is quite a lot even for the hardened drinker Jean Rhys had become - she was in her early forties when she wrote this book.

You can see how the alcohol may have been effective. It's very hard to find good examples of Expressionism in literature, whereas in art it's very easy to compare and contrast Impressionist and Expressionist works. But this novel is an expressionist work, using (for example) colour imagery like splashes of colour and deploying dialogue in strong and bold strokes. Almost inevitably, it's short (152 pages) - expressionism is not about fine details.

And the alcohol was surely indispensable in overcoming fear of the censor and - perhaps more important - self-censorship. It cannot have been easy to write in 1930s England and in the first person about having sex for money or having an abortion when it was illegal. 

The work still reads as very fresh - one might say, vibrant. It's an impressive novel. 

Jean Rhys published several works in the 1920s and 1930s, none of them really successful. Then she disappeared from English literary consciousness until at the age of 76 she had great success with Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Apparently, there were people who were surprised by the novel because they thought she was dead - something which I suppose was possible in the days before Google and probably reflects the fact that she did not attend London literary parties but instead was "living reclusively in Cornwall", which is no way for a living novelist to behave. 

Friday 24 April 2015

Review: Blaine Harden, The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot

Books about North Korea are popular. The macabre theatre of the regime, aimed at Western audiences, fascinates us in a way which the nasty, brutish and short lives of its citizens never would.

And there is a general sense that, however awful, nothing can be done about North Korea. The regime is mad but so by now are the people. It's a Lose-Lose situation.

This readable book splices a history of the early years of North Korea's existence (say, 1945 - 1955) with the story of a North Korean jet fighter pilot who, shortly after the Armistice in the Korean War (1953) defected to the South flying his MiG. From take off to landing, it took him 17 minutes (page 180) but the defection had been meditated for several years. And it was in no way heroic. The pilot just imagined that life would be better in the USA than North Korea - where it might indeed have been suddenly terminal. With a family background closely connected to working with the Japanese Occupiers, you never knew.

The book is most interesting when it uses archival documents, some of them recently released, to document two things. First, the distrust and exasperation with which Kim Il Sung (the founder of the Kim dynasty) was held by his masters in Moscow and Beijing, and right from the start. Neither Stalin or Mao had any regard for him.He was very lucky to have survived and for so long - in the end, he probably did so because he could play off the two regimes during the later period of the Sino-Soviet conflict. As I read my newspapers, Chinese distrust and exasperation with the regime on its border continues to this day. Maybe Russian too - though President Putin has recently extended the hand of friendship to  Kim Jong Un.

Second, the dishonest and fairly incompetent handling by American agencies of No Kum Sok's defection - sufficiently so to cause some anxiety to President Eisenhower who didn't want half of what his agents, military and CIA, were giving him. And, ironically, having escaped from North Korea and its compulsory lies, the first thing the Americans asked of No Kum Sok was that he should lie about what he knew: When you are asked if you saw American planes operating over Chinese air space - the pilot had been based most of the time in China - you say that you didn't. Even though you did, daily.

Monday 20 April 2015

Review: Tom Burgis, The Looting Machine

How come Africans are so poor when Africa is so rich in natural resources? Simply because the revenues generated by exploitation of those resources are split between the giant multinationals who operate the mines and oil wells - and the personal bank accounts of government ministers or other racketeers who collect the rent in profit shares, licence fees and bribes. Nobody else gets a look in. It's as simple as that.

Tom Burgis is an investigative journalist and a lot of this book reads like the cut and paste of past investigations, with generous helpings of disclaimers to protect him from English libel laws. So he dutifully records that everyone living who he names denies having done what it is commonly believed they have done. Everyone else is corrupt but not me, they all say. All Cretans are liars.

There are many fascinating - and harrowing tales - scattered through this book, along with many statistics to make you weep. Not much has changed since King Leopold of the Belgians ran his racket in the Congo - size of Europe -  that he personally owned.

If Burgis is right - and the idea of "resource curse" is not novel and is widely held to be at the root of sub-Saharan Africa's tragedy - then the implications are actually worse than he tells us. I will elaborate.

A country, a state is a geographically defined entity which has its borders accepted by the United Nations. The government of that country is any body which the United Nations (and at least as helpfully, the United States) recognises as entitled to make laws, control the borders and decapitate people or put them in the electric chair. The United Nations is fairly broad minded about what qualifies you as a legitimate government. Most any bunch of gangsters will do and the longer they hold on, the more legitimate they become. All the advanced, civilised Western nations exchange Ambassadors with Equatorial Guinea which currently is Number One in the world for an inverse relationship between GDP per capita ($30 000) and individual well-being. New gangsters in the Presidential palace may, initially, have a hard time - but Burgis points out that nowadays China will often enough come to their rescue with immediate up-front cash advances against future deals.

In general, the local labour forces required to exploit mines or oil wells are small. In general, the governments of resource-rich states can both run the country and pocket personal billions just from the money passed to them by the oil companies or the uranium miners. They don't need tax revenues from local people.

And the implication is this: they don't need the local people at all. Maybe they need 10% of the population as a helot class to do manual labour and service jobs. The rest of the population could simply die and there would be no ill-effect. Indeed, it would solve the problem of insurgencies and protest movements. Let Ebola or, more selectively, genocide carry them off. A country free of people would make life much easier for the regimes and the multinationals. And the United Nations would not mind: there is no minimum population you need to get in - Nauru is a full member with a population of under 10 000

This is an information-rich book. If you read it alongside Frank Ledwidge's Losing Small Wars you get an even gloomier picture for prospects in Africa's resource-rich countries.

Thursday 16 April 2015

Review: Lionel Davidson, Kolymsky Heights

This is a 2015 re-issue of a 1994 novel with an Introduction by Philip Pullman.

It's a Quest, Grail and Chase thriller. The hero, Johnny Porter has to get from A to a very inaccessible B; then he has to Meet the person who will give him what he has come for - in this case, Information; then he has to get back from B to A. Over 478 pages, it's an extended anxiety dream from which you cannot escape. In other words, it's a thriller.

I suspect the author got caught out a bit by the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is notionally set in post-1991 Russia; but really it's set in the Soviet Union, even though the Siberian weather - which plays quite a large part in the narrative - didn't change with the regime.

I found the main character, Johnny Porter, actually a bit of a cipher. For all his multiple talents, he's not very interesting. All the interest is in the narrative which supports him.

This narrative makes rich use of detail - rather like Martin Cruz Smith's 1981 Gorky Park. So much so, that the author felt we needed a couple of maps to help us. Unfortunately, at least one and probably several editors at Faber and Faber, the book's upmarket London publishers, failed to notice that the maps on pages 158 and 417 have been transposed so that the first one, when encountered, is merely baffling and the second one too, until you realise that this is not part of the plot but a publisher's mistake.  

Sunday 12 April 2015

Review: Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans

I wanted to read this book and did so, cover to cover, but I found it rather disappointing. It's very much a conventional military history of battles fought, seen from our side and theirs (as one would nowadays expect). There are lots of these battles, mostly involving the Brits and their colonial troops, taking place and taking their toll from Gallipoli in the West to the Hijaz in the East. The slaughter is not so massive as on the Western Front, though there is plenty of casual cruelty running alongside. And on a much larger and more horrific scale, there is the Armenian genocide, which Rogan explains in terms of the Turks' image of the Armenians as a Russian Fifth Column in the Anatolian heartland. Rogan is interesting when he points out that the main details of the genocide have been in the public domain since 1919 when the new Turkish government tried and condemned its main instigators.

When he moves outside military history, Rogan paints a sorry tale of the callousness and perfidy of the Allies in their pursuit of Imperial ambitions, secretly carving up Ottoman territory between themselves (Sykes-Picot and so on), making promises to the Zionists (the Balfour Declaration) and misleading Arab nationalists about their true intentions as they enlisted them as expendable temporary allies.

I would have welcomed more on the emergence of Turkish identity as the successor to Ottoman identity - after all the period he writes about was dominated by the "Young Turks" not the Sultan and Caliph. Rogan portrays the Ottomans as pursuing an essentially defensive policy - which they were, surrounded as they were by sharks - but there must have been some in Constantinople thinking beyond that.