Archive for August, 2007


Speaking for England: Leo, Julian and John Amery — The Tragedy of a Political Family by David Faber

31 August 2007

More backlog, more Tories.

Speaking for England: Leo, Julian and John Amery — The Tragedy of a Political Family by David Faber

On 2 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared in a debate in the House of Commons that he was not going to declare war on Germany, even though the invasion of Poland the day before had made a clear statement about Hitler’s intentions towards Europe. Deputy Labour Party leader Arthur Greenwood rose to speak in reply, and initially announced that he would be speaking for the Labour Party in response to the prime minister’s statement. But before Greenword could say another word, a voice called out from the Conservative Party benches, ‘Speak for England, Arthur!‘ — and it would not be an exaggeration to say that that furious outburst from prominent Conservative MP Leo Amery marked the beginning of the end for Chamberlain’s government. Amery also provided the statement that marked the actual end of Neville Chamberlain’s premiership, when he finished his long and devastating critique of the government during the Norway Debate by quoting Oliver Cromwell’s famous words of dismissal to another Parliament, several centuries before:

You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

Leo Amery (1873-1955) spent much of his life devoted to politics, particularly the political causes of imperial preference — favourable tariffs for trade with the Dominions and colonies — and other aspects of the relationship between Britain and the Empire. He eventually became Secretary of State for India under Winston Churchill’s wartime government. But it was during his time as India Secretary that his political life was marked by a sudden and personally devastating event that caused quite a stir at the time. Amery’s elder son John, who had been living in France and had been unable to get back to England when the Germans invaded, went on German radio and made a series of virulently anticommunist and anti-Semitic radio broadcasts from Berlin. (Considering the fact that Leo Amery’s mother was a Jewish Hungarian and Leo had grown up surrounded by his mother’s Jewish friends and relatives, his son’s anti-Semitism was a particularly personal blow.) John Amery also gained permission to travel around occupied Europe in an attempt to recruit British prisoners-of-war to a ‘British Free Corps’ that would fight with the Nazis against the Red Army on the eastern front. When the war ended, John Amery was arrested and tried for high treason, actually plead guilty to the charge (on the premise that doing so would mitigate the pain of his family, since it was all too apparent that he wasn’t likely to win with a not-guilty plea), and was duly hanged in Wandsworth Prison in December 1945.

Speaking for England is primarily a biography of Leo Amery, and the bulk of the book is devoted to chronicling his youth, education, wartime activities, and the ups and downs of his political life. Amery was contemporary, friend, and occasional sparring partner to the vast majority of the British political elite from the first half of the twentieth century, and his turbulent relationship with Winston Churchill provides a wealth of anecdotes and historical analysis that at times is the driving force of the biography. It isn’t until the later chapters of the book that the focus partly shifts away from Leo Amery and onto his sons John and Julian — highlighting the sharp contrast between John the amoral and shiftless wastrel and Julian the polyglot World War II intelligence officer who later followed in his father’s footsteps to become an outspoken backbench Conservative MP.

David Faber has written a strong and moving biography in Speaking for England, one that reads more like a real story than a biography. There’s a fairly good balance of the political and the personal, as Faber seems to devote almost as much attention to Leo Amery’s fondness for mountaineering and other rugged outdoor sports as he does to the blow-by-blow accounts of interwar and wartime politics. Faber certainly doesn’t try to redeem John Amery as a person — not a easy thing to do at any rate, since the evidence points to the conclusion that John Amery was a thoroughly nasty piece of goods from his childhood days, a sociopath and a compulsive liar who probably would have been imprisoned long before his broadcasts had it not been for his father’s influence. I do wish that Faber had paid a bit more attention to Julian Amery’s later career after the war and after his brother’s death. Julian Amery was a fascinating character in his own right, making a right nuisance of himself from the backbenches over British involvement in Suez in 1956, and Faber barely breezes through that period. Considering how much of an impact Leo Amery had on his younger son’s political ambitions, it’s a shame that Julian’s story isn’t told to the fullest. That, I think, is really the only thing that mars what is otherwise a marvellous biography.


The Mitrokhin Archive (Vols. I and II) by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

30 August 2007

I have more than a few previously written reviews, so I’m going to attempt to post at least one a day or every other day until I clear out my backlog and can start adding my current reading matter. If you’ve followed my reviews before elsewhere, please be patient — I’ll get to new material soon enough!

The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Britain and the West by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin
The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB and the World by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin

The story of Vasili Mitrokhin is so extraordinary that it is rather difficult to accept at face value. It is a truly stunning intelligence coup of Cold War history, even though it took place in that murky time at the end of the Cold War — a time when the various espionage networks in Europe were just coming to terms with the fact that the world was changing out of all recognition.

Simply put, Mitrokhin was a KGB officer who worked in the intelligence service’s archives, holding one of the less glamourous but no less important posts in the espionage hierarchy. He had held that position for many years, and in his time countless documents and files on the inner workings of the KGB had passed through his hands. But Mitrokhin had become disillusioned over the years with the Soviet system, having seen firsthand how the KGB manipulated the Soviet justice system and worked to stifle any and all attempt to truly reform society and improve the living standards of the ordinary Soviet people. And so, at great risk to himself, he began to smuggle different documents out of the archives and copy them by hand, returning the originals and hiding the copies in various locations around his home. He carried on this secret copying for nearly twelve years until his retirement in 1984, and though he often considered possible ways to escape from the Soviet Union and get his precious documents to the West, he remained patient. In March of 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mitrokhin packed up sample of his documents, drove them across the newly-opened border into the new Baltic republic of Latvia, and visited the Western intelligence services to present his papers to those who might find them of interest. And once SIS got its hands on the papers and discovered the extent of Mitrokhin’s note-taking….

Both volumes of The Mitrokhin Archive are a fascinating attempt to make sense of all the documents that Mitrokhin copied. Some of the secrets in the files were utterly shocking revelations at the time — one example being the case of Melita Norwood, a British woman who had been one of the longest-lasting spies in KGB history, and who had passed low-level secrets on nuclear research to the KGB ever since the Second World War. Other documents reveal Soviet involvement in other Western European countries, particularly in connection with the French and Italian Communist parties. Still other documents shed light on Soviet counterintelligence during events like the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the clampdown on the ‘Prague spring’ in 1968, including information on how Soviet agents posed as sympathetic Westerners to infiltrate dissident groups throughout Eastern Europe.

The Mitrokhin Archive II focuses on the rest of the world, most specifically on the ‘Third World’ nations that the Soviet Union regarded as likely locations in which to build socialist or communist states. The book is divided into sections on Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with chapters focusing on either a specific country or time period for the KGB’s activities. For instance, Mitrokhin and Andrew devote two chapters to India, one of the premier targets for KGB activity, pointing out the extent to which the KGB promoted Indira Gandhi’s paranoia that the CIA and various other Western intelligence services were plotting to depose or murder her. The Soviet war of attrition in Afghanistan also gets two chapters of coverage, attempting to untangle the complicated connections between various factions and rival groups in the late 1970s through the 1980s. Other countries and regions also receive a careful study, with some intriguing revelations:

  • Soviet espionage in China after the Sino-Soviet split was made all but impossible by the fact that the Chinese secret police knew all the identities of the KGB’s agents in the PRC and proceeded to kill them all off — a lesson on why it’s not always good to share everything with your allies
  • Attempts to spy on China by way of Japan ran into problems when the Japanese Communist Party chose to ally itself ideologically with Beijing
  • KGB involvement in starting and spreading the urban legend about Latin American children being kidnapped and killed to provide donated organs for rich Americans

(I’m not entirely certain if it’s a reflection on the fact that I’m not as ‘genned up’ on Third World Cold War history as I thought I was, but I found the second volume to be a little less readable than the first. It may simply be that I’m not as familiar with the names and events mentioned and discussed, in which case a little outside reading might be in order to see if the research makes more sense to me then. Just a bit of qualification that might explain why I preferred the first volume to the second.)

Vasili Mitrokhin died in 2004, shortly after the publication of the first volume of The Mitrokhin Archive. Christopher Andrew completed this second volume on his own, working with Mitrokhin’s original notes. There has been some controversy over the archive, particularly from scholars who question Mitrokhin’s credibility. How, they ask, could someone who never managed to rise above a middling rank in the KGB manage to evade the strict security surrounding the archives and spend the better part of his career making notes on extremely sensitive case files? When I think about some of the real-life spy stories that have shown up in the press since the late 1980s, I’m a little more inclined to take Mitrokhin’s archive at face value. Even if it’s exposed as a fraud at some point in the future, the Mitrokhin Archive would still be a great set of books to show just how engrossing a fraud can be.

Regardless, anyone with any interest in espionage and intelligence history will want to read these books. They are thorough and painstakingly detailed, remarkably comprehensive and written in a crisply academic style that suits the subject matter well. Mitrokhin’s vast collection of papers sheds light on Soviet intelligence activities around the world, from the early days of the October Revolution to the events leading up to the coup that all but toppled Gorbachev. Some of the real stories told in the archives would put any writer of spy fiction to shame.


The Guardsmen: Harold Macmillan, Three Friends, and the World They Made by Simon Ball

29 August 2007

May as well start up the reviews with a book that’s tangentially related to my current reading. I’m working through Francis Beckett’s biography of Clement Attlee and re-reading D.H. Thorpe’s biography of Sir Alec Douglas-Home to write a double review article for Political Studies Review, and I ended up doing a bit of cross-checking with Ball’s book just to make sure of my facts. All the more reason to post a review of it here.

The Guardsmen: Harold Macmillan, Three Friends, and the World They Made by Simon Ball

The old saying about the battles of England being won on the playing fields of Eton is well past cliché by now, but it’s difficult to deny the hold that Eton’s students-turned-soldiers have had over British political history, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. To take one representative sample — the subjects of Simon Ball’s collective biography — four young men entered Eton in 1906, proceeded to Oxford University, served in the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards on the Western Front during the Great War and became members of Winston Churchill’s Cabinet during World War II. One of the four, Harold Macmillan, would eventually serve for nearly seven years as Prime Minister. The other three — Robert Cranborne (known to his friends as ‘Bobbety’, and later as the fifth Marquess of Salisbury), Oliver Lyttleton (later the first Viscount Chandos), and Harry Crookshank — would all hold prominent positions in the Conservative Party. Looking at political history from the perspectives of these four men makes for an interesting and intimate perspective, one worth examining further.

The Guardsmen‘s focus is primarily on Macmillan and Salisbury (as the two who made it farthest up the greasy pole, as king and king-maker respectively), but Lyttleton and Crookshank certainly aren’t ignored by any stretch of the imagination. Ball has crafted his study of these Tory politicians from a staggering amount of personal letters and diaries, pulling together any number of complex narrative threads to weave the four men’s lives together. The history’s solid, the narrative for the most part keeps up a steady pace (though it does get bogged down a little in the intricacies of inter-party politics in the 1930s), and Ball manages to keep the reader engaged in his subjects without sounding overly sympathetic or hostile to any of them. He’s very deft at character sketches: Macmillan’s obsessive and often vicious politicking and Salisbury’s sense of his political destiny come through very clearly, but also with subtlety that keeps them from becoming the caricatures they so often ended up as in the press.

The Guardsmen is in many ways a very sad book, most notably in the later chapters as the friendship between the four men increasingly fragments and unravels. It is not easy to keep friends in politics, as any reader of political diaries and memoirs will note. What makes it all the more sad is that even as Macmillan, Salisbury, Lyttleton and Crookshank were drifting apart, the rising generation of the 1960s found their generation a worthy and easy target for scorn and satire — the play Oh! What a Lovely War!, for instance, is a biting commentary on the entire mindset of those who had fought in the Great War. Where once they had been young dashing heroes, now they were either laughable or pitiful old men, hopelessly out of touch and even viewed by some more radical writers as little better than war criminals for the part they had played in both world wars. The world they had made had somehow fallen away from them, and to a man they almost seemed to end their days in frustration and sorrow. The Guardsmen doesn’t end on a very happy note, but it does illustrate just how much these four men had to sacrifice to ‘play the game’ in their attempts to thrive and stay alive in the delicately cut-throat world of Westminster politics.

– SG


Proper Introduction

19 August 2007

Greetings, all! Welcome to ‘To Bed With a Trollope’, a blog dedicated primarily to book reviews and recommendations.

To forestall any questions about my choice of blog name, I should mention that it comes from a quip supposedly made by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. When a journalist asked him how he preferred to relax in his spare time, he mentioned that he liked to ‘go to bed with a Trollope’ — that is, a novel by the writer Anthony Trollope, known for his novels on the complexities of society and politics in Victorian Britain. (I’ve gone to bed with a few Trollopes myself, and if you like that sort of thing then they’re quite satisfying.)

I intend to start by going back through a series of book reviews I’ve been writing for the better part of three years now, and once I’ve caught up to where I happen to be on my Massive Pile of Books to Read, I’ll start posting my current reading material as well. Comments are of course appreciated — I’m quite interested to hear what other people might have to say about my reviews.

– SG



17 August 2007

Content to follow, once I begin to copy and upload it.