Archive for the ‘intelligence’ Category


Commentary: A very un-Canadian Caper….

27 September 2012

(I originally wrote this on another online journaling site, but after consideration I feel that it’s worth re-posting here as well, with a few minor edits.)

I know that I shouldn’t let myself get too upset about Hollywood’s usual approach to history, because if I did then I’d likely never do anything with my time but froth at the mouth. But I feel rather strongly about this most recent bit of history that Hollywood’s taken on: the Canadian Caper, which will shortly air as the new Ben Affleck picture Argo.

It’s an exciting true-life story, I’ll admit. At the height of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, a CIA operative is given the task of rescuing six Americans who managed to escape the storming of the Tehran embassy and are hiding in the homes of two Canadian diplomats, one of whom is Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. So the CIA fakes an entire film production company, Studio Six, and gets into Iran under cover of scouting locations for a new film called Argo. When the fake film team leaves the country shortly thereafter, the six Americans (having been given Canadian passports with CIA-forged Iranian visas) leave under their cover as the film crew, reaching the safety of Switzerland before travelling back to the States. The remaining Canadian diplomats evacuate the country shortly thereafter, and when the press breaks the story of the daring ‘Canadian Caper’, Iran breaks off diplomatic relations with Canada in retribution. Lots of room for action, adventure, and dramatic tension in a story like that. It’s a nail-biting suspense flick if I ever heard one.

But now we come to Argo, the film based on these events.

According to the IMDB cast list, as best I can tell the only Canadian figure given reasonable billing is Ambassador Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber (thankfully, Canadian himself). Taylor’s wife Pat is also included, further down the cast list. But there is no mention of John and Zena Sheardown, the Canadian immigration officer and his wife who also sheltered three of the six Americans for more than two months. No mention of either Prime Minister Joe Clark or Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald, who originally pushed through the Order in Council that issued six Canadian passports to be used for the rescue attempt. Yes, Tony Mendez and the CIA organised the actual rescue, faking the visa information and going into Iran as the exfiltration team. But for those two months, Taylor and Sheardown put themselves and their families at great personal risk to hide the fugitive Americans, living with the constant fear that someone would find out what was going on and let it slip to the hostage-takers at the American embassy. Why are the Canadians so conspicuously absent from a film about the Canadian Caper?

Granted, I understand that the film is based on Tony Mendez’s book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, which naturally focuses on the CIA’s part in the rescue of the six Americans. Unlike Canadian historian Robert Wright’s book Our Man in Tehran, which centres on Ambassador Taylor’s role during the hostage crisis, Argo plays up the successful, hands-on American action — such a contrast to the months of waiting endured by the hostages, and the shambolic failure of the Operation Eagle Claw rescue attempt. Nonetheless, by all but writing the Canadians out of the Canadian Caper, Argo suggests that Ben Affleck has taken all the wrong lessons about creating historical drama from his heavily panned role in 2001’s Pearl Harbor.

I will probably see Argo, just so I can critique it on its own merits or lack thereof rather than on what I’m seeing from the trailers and the cast list. I’m particularly interested in how the Iranians themselves are portrayed, and if even the slightest nods are given to the history of American meddling in Iran and its less-than-honourable support for the shah. But I’ll be fighting my own blood pressure the whole time.


A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

12 January 2010

I believe this is the last of the reviews I wrote for the September 2008 issue of Political Studies Review. The next new review should be ready for posting by next week.

A Companion to International History 1900–2001, edited by Gordon Martel

The intent of the Blackwell Companions to History series is to provide compact collections of writings that address the most important, overarching concepts in particular historical fields and look at the changing ways in which historians have approached these concepts. In that tradition, the contributors to Blackwell’s A Companion to International History 1900–2001 have given the editors a volume of concise, well-written historiographical and interpretive essays dealing with both specific areas of interest and broader themes in twentieth century history.

The essays in this volume cover the full span of the twentieth century, looking back to the early years of the century to examine the origins of the First World War and continuing all the way through to the events of 11 September 2001. Broader themes explored include nationalism and imperialism, as well as the changes wrought on the diplomatic world by the shifting balances of power and ideological realignments of the past 100 years. The more area-specific essays look into the topics that are the staple of most any international history survey — the crisis periods of the two world wars and the Cold War, overviews of pre-war and inter-war European alliances and post-war European integration, regional studies of the roles played by Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the post-war world, and even several essays on post–Cold War politics and the effects of globalisation and terrorism. The guides to further reading, located at the end of each chapter, provide briefly annotated lists of selected books and articles for those who are interested in going deeper into a particular subject.

Many of the contributors will be familiar to those who have made a study of contemporary international history, and the quality of the contributions is uniformly excellent. In a collection of such first-rate work, it is difficult to highlight any one or two individual entries as particularly worthy of note. Overall, the Companion to International History is another welcome addition to Blackwell’s high-quality series, suitable not only for students who are just beginning to explore the complexities of international history but also for established scholars who require a handy desk reference for teaching, research, or simply for a quick refresher on major historical themes of the previous century.

First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 433–434.
The definitive version is available at


The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton

21 April 2009

I feel as if my recent book review posts have been tilting more towards fiction than non-fiction, which is well enough for posting but does not accurately represent the current state of my book review backlog. I’ll have more than a few non-fiction works coming up soon, to balance things out a little more.

The IPCRESS File by Len Deighton

It began as a fairly routine sort of day for our hero, an unnamed young man working for British military intelligence. An important scientist, codenamed ‘Raven’, had left his house that morning and had not arrived at his workplace, and evidence seemed to suggest that Raven was the latest in a series of what appeared to be either kidnappings or defections. The mission was straightforward: take a certain plane to Lebanon, rendezvous with certain people who have certain weapons, and use the appropriate means to prevent Raven from being transported over the border into Syria in the dead of night. And the mission is successful, in the sense that Raven is brought back alive and in one piece. But why did the senior officer involved in the Lebanon raid apologise to Raven before bringing him back to London? And why are the Americans suddenly very interested in the case, and in our hero’s part in Raven’s rescue? The capture and return of Raven, it seems, are only a small part of a much larger conspiracy that our hero must unravel before he becomes the next person to leave his house in the morning and never return — and as he tells it, this conspiracy is the story behind the IPCRESS file.

The IPCRESS File was Len Deighton’s breakthrough thriller novel, published in 1962, and when compared to other espionage novels of the time it bridges the literary and stylistic gap between the Ian Fleming and John le Carré approaches to espionage fiction. The unnamed protagonist lives in a small flat in an unfashionable area of south London — where it takes 40 minutes to get a taxi, because the drivers don’t like going south of the Thames — and he takes a grim sort of pride in the fact that by education and temperament he is quite unlike the smooth-talking public-school chaps he frequently meets in his line of work. However, he has an appreciation for good food and drink, especially expensive coffees, and more than once his internal monologue despairs over the poor quality of the coffee served in his office and compares it with the kind he drinks at home. The flashy settings and sinister international plots that thrilled readers of the James Bond stories are replaced with the dimly lit Whitehall corridors and squabbles over unpaid travel vouchers more familiar to fans of George Smiley, but Deighton provides more than a few frantic chases, sinister tortures, and clever escapes from danger to keep the plot rumbling along. On the subject of the plot itself, Deighton’s writing style is Dickensian at times, particularly in the sense that he seems to takes the most pleasure in crafting interesting character types or evocative turns of phrase (such as a woman whose hairstyle has been ‘intimidated’ into place) at the expense of the greater plot. The final chapter is a massive and rather clunky information dump that even a slapdash mystery novelist might find overwhelming — the true meaning of ‘IPCRESS’, for instance, does not appear until about 20 pages before the end. The plot is there, but somehow it becomes almost secondary to the action and the lovingly descriptive passages, which may disappoint some readers who are used to more tightly crafted espionage writing. Nonetheless, Deighton’s work was one of the early examples of a plot centred on the battle between the spy-as-action-hero and the spy-as-bureaucrat, which makes it worth examining as a piece at the forefront of this particular trope.

Fans of the spy thriller genre may be more familiar with The IPCRESS File through the 1965 film of the same name, which stars Michael Caine as ‘Harry Palmer’, the name chosen for Deighton’s nameless man of action. The film provides a bit more backstory for Caine’s Harry Palmer, but it was Caine’s brisk performance in the film that truly made the role his own and provided him with his first starring role. Those who have seen the film but have never read the book might be interested to see the source material (and judge it on its own merits), while those who have never seen the book or the film will find The IPCRESS File a tortuous but quick read, as well as a classic text of mid-Cold War espionage fiction.


A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

3 February 2009

Yet another John Le Carré book, in my attempt to work through some of the novels that do not happen to feature George Smiley.

A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré

An embassy, by its very nature, is a small outpost of one country on another country’s soil. The little community of diplomats and staff that inhabit the outpost are well prepared to close ranks at the first hint of outside trouble or threat, especially at embassies in a country with unsettled political situations — and in Cold War Europe, few countries matched this description better than the two countries of a divided Germany. With the old capital city of Berlin walled off behind the Iron Curtain, the fog-choked industrial town of Bonn became the de facto capital of the Federal Republic of Germany. Although it was jokingly called the Bundesdorf (‘Federal Village’) because of its sleepy, almost backwater milieu, Bonn soon became the home of the various embassies of West Germany’s friends and allies, a small town in which the diplomats could play their delicate and occasionally desperate games while keeping one eye to the east.

In this small town in Germany, the diplomats and support staff of the British embassy are playing a particularly desperate game at present. The Government at home is fighting to survive, and anti-British sentiment is on the rise in a popular protest movement that has the not-so-secret sympathies of the present West German leaders. The British have pinned all their hopes on successfully negotiating entry to the European Economic Community, and everyone is keen to ensure that nothing happens to sour the deal. So when a junior file clerk named Leo Harting and several exceedingly sensitive files go missing from the embassy on the same evening, the blunt but efficient Alan Turner is sent from London to track down both the files and the man. Turner rides roughshod over the embassy staff, digging into private lives and reopening buried conflicts amongst the diplomats and staff members, as he attempts to get to the bottom of Harting’s disappearance. At it happens, though, the real conflicts run much deeper than Turner could have ever suspected, and are inextricably tied to a gruesome history that both the British and the West Germans hope will never see the light of day.

A Small Town in Germany draws on John Le Carré’s own experiences working in the British embassy in Bonn, which may explain how he manages to capture the sheer claustrophobia that can sometimes accompany diplomatic life abroad. The plot, although more tortuous than some of his previous books, has many of the quintessential Le Carré features — not least of which are the female characters who seem to be incapable of maintaining a stream of consciousness without having it wind its way back to sex. (I discussed this particular problem with a few friends a short while ago; the consensus seemed to be that this sort of characterisation might have seemed rather novel or daring when Le Carré was first writing his books, but with the passage of time is has become dated to the point of reading more like cliche than originality.) All the same, many of the good characteristics of a Le Carré novel are still there, the descriptions that immerse you in the setting and the careful turns of phrase that can sketch lightly or cut deeply. As a classic Cold War espionage novel, A Small Town in Germany deftly illustrates its author’s skill in overlapping layer upon layer of personal and political motivations to keep the reader in the dark until the very end.


Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

20 January 2009

Another foray into Graham Greene’s fiction, following on my reviews of The Quiet American and The Human Factor.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

For expatriate Englishman James Wormold, life in Fulgencio Batista’s Havana has long lost any of the exotic charm or tropical romance it might once have possessed. His wife left him many years ago, leaving him responsible for raising their daughter Milly, and although he manages to keep his business as a vacuum cleaner salesman afloat, he cannot give Milly all of the little (and not-so-little) treats that she asks for. Fearful of the looming overdraft in his bank book, Wormold grasps at the first outside opportunity that presents itself to him: when a smooth-talking Englishman by the name of Hawthorne offers him a sizeable sum of money to work for British intelligence in Cuba, he hesitates for only a moment before accepting both the offer and the cash. Yet to keep the money coming in, Wormold has to provide information to pass along to London — and so he begins to fabricate an entire network of semi-real and entirely imaginary ‘agents’ in Cuba. Thanks to the work of his agents, he even provides his superiors with the design plans of a new secret weapon supposedly being assembled in Cuba. (Strange, though, that the plans for the secret weapon should bear a strong resemblance to sketches of the parts of a vacuum cleaner….) As Wormold’s half-truths and utter lies become more and more detailed, his superiors in London could not be more pleased with the professional output of their man in Havana, whose information allows them to show up the efforts of their counterparts on either side of the Cold War. But as the fiction begins to create its own increasingly dangerous reality, Wormold soon realises that he has no choice but to finish the game he started to play — before someone else decides to finish it for him.

The plot of Our Man in Havana draws heavily upon Greene’s work for British intelligence during and shortly after World War II. In particular, Wormold’s position as a real agent in charge of fictional agents owes a good deal to the story of the real World War II double agent known as GARBO, a Spanish citizen who fabricated an elaborate network of subagents through which British intelligence passed false information to GARBO’s ostensible superiors in the Abwehr. For that matter, for a book first published in 1958, the story’s talk of revolutionaries in the hills and (real or fictional) secret military installations on Cuban soil is more than a little prescient. But Greene’s focus is on the absurdities of the intelligence game, especially the notion of the ‘gentleman spy’ so beloved of espionage fiction writers like Ian Fleming, and he wastes few opportunities to skewer or invert many of the genre conventions of which Fleming and others were so fond.

The historical background and parody status notwithstanding, Our Man in Havana falls a little flat in its execution. The pragmatic female character introduced halfway through the story may as well have had ‘eventual love interest’ stamped across her forehead from the outset, in spite of Greene’s attempts to break the convention and fashion her into a spirited woman who can hold her own with the men around her. The final confrontation scenes, in which Wormold must elude both the Cuban authorities and the real (and far more deadly) intelligence operatives working in Havana, are quite good but seem somewhat strained in context, as if Greene himself found it difficult to switch gears to write them. Several scenes are indeed amusing from an enjoyably farcical perspective, and the plot wraps up neatly in the best happy-family comedy style, but as a work of espionage fiction Our Man in Havana has a hard time measuring up to the literary, thematic, character, or plot standards of Greene’s more serious The Quiet American or The Human Factor. Which is not to say that it is not worth reading — Greene’s sly commentary on expatriate life and satirical approach to the genre makes Our Man in Havana as much of an ‘entertainment’ as the book’s original subtitle suggests.


The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

12 October 2008

I read this shortly after I finished Call for the Dead, and it’s quite interesting to see how Le Carré’s writing style developed between his first book and this one. There are still one or two more of the ‘early’ Le Carré books that I’d like to read, including A Small Town in Germany and possibly A Murder of Quality — they’ll appear in this blog if I happen to get around to them.

The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré

During World War II, the British intelligence services were organised into a number of different divisions responsible for different aspects of espionage and analysis. For reasons of security and inter-departmental propriety, the divisions responsible for political intelligence and military intelligence were kept separate, and known only by their generic codenames — the ‘Circus’ dealt with political affairs, the ‘Department’ dealt with military matters. Even though both agencies operated in Nazi-occupied areas, their remits were distinct and their staffs only collaborated when necessity demanded collaboration. After the war, however, the Circus and the Department found themselves competing in bureaucratic turf wars for government funding and support, and the better-organised Circus outflanked the Department and won the lion’s share of both. The Department was left to fend for itself, as its senior staff spent most of the time dreaming of their glory days and its new recruits muddled along as best they could. Yet when a Department courier is found dead on the side of the road near a small airport in Finland, and a less-than-reliable source passes on information about the possible movement of Soviet nuclear missiles to a site in East Germany near the border with the West, the old hands of the Department frantically work to recruit and retrain a formerly active agent to be infiltrated behind the Iron Curtain — a final push against an old enemy.

The Looking Glass War was John Le Carré’s fourth book, published two years after his best-selling The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it was nowhere near as successful as its predecessor. Le Carré himself, in the introduction to later editions, considered that much of the reason for the book’s poor reception had to do with the fact that it was very much the antithesis of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The Looking Glass War is the story of failure, failed men and failed plans, an intelligence service that cannot remember whether it is fighting the Russians or the Germans and can only scrouge up cast-off agents and hopelessly outdated equipment for a haphazard, suicidal mission. Le Carré, in retrospect, claimed that he had not gone far enough in his critical appraisal of British intelligence in the novel. In his eyes, a proper tale of the British intelligence community of the 1960s could not be written without reference to ‘its internecine feuds and betrayals, its class distinctions and its obsessive vision of the American oaf, trespassing on our precious colonial turf‘ — in short, an unrelentingly bleak vision of Britain after Suez, sleepwalking its way into an uncertain future.

Le Carré claimed that The Looking Glass War was his most realistic spy novel, at least in the sense that it was based on the intelligence community that he knew and in which he briefly served. He finds space to give George Smiley, his best-known character, a minor role as an unwilling liaison between the Circus and the Department, though Smiley plays only a small part in the larger plot. (There may be the faintest hint of foreshadowing of the events of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, although that book would not be written for another decade.) The story dwells on the main themes that crop up quite often in Le Carré’s books, including the nature of betrayal and the toll that espionage work takes on the private lives of those who are involved in intelligence circles. As a spy novel, it is indeed unrelentingly bleak, greyer and grittier than even Le Carré tends to be in his writing. Even so, it seems uncomfortably authentic in the morbidness of its plot and characters; it may be an exaggeration of reality, but there are enough echoes of truth in it to allow our imaginations to take care of the rest.


The Human Factor by Graham Greene

28 September 2008

I keep meaning to read Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, but I’ve had a difficult time finding it in the library of late. I picked up this other espionage-based work of his in its place, and I found it to be a more than acceptable (if rather less humourous) substitute.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Maurice Castle, to all outward appearances, leads a life that is so well-ordered that it might easily be described as boring. He takes the same train to work every morning, eats the same lunch in the same pub that he has frequented for years, arrives home around the same time each evening, drinks the same amount of whiskey (rather too much, but not enough to prevent him from functioning in the morning) before bed, and starts his next workday with the same routine. Even his work for British intelligence, monitoring the trickles of information that come from scattered agents and observation posts in southern Africa, is far from exciting. The only real colour in his life, so to speak, comes his wife Sarah and son Sam. Castle had met Sarah in South Africa almost a decade ago, when he was stationed there, and both of them had fled the country barely a step ahead of BOSS, the South African intelligence service — because Sarah is black, and their relationship had violated South Africa’s race laws. Castle had hoped that returning to England would mark the end of his and Sarah’s troubles, but his escape had come at a terrible price, and not all of his debts had been paid in full. So when Castle’s superiors suspect that someone in his department has been passing information to the Soviets, and the calm and orderly life that he has tried so hard to protect is in danger of crumbling around him, Maurice Castle takes the greatest risk of his life in a frantic, last-ditch effort to salvage his marriage, his family, and what little remains of his freedom.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor is based on Greene’s experiences in British intelligence during World War II, as well as his travels to remote locations in British colonial outposts in Africa and elsewhere in the 1940s and 1950s. In his introduction to the book, he states that had hoped to write a novel that depicted intelligence work as a normal and relatively mundane working world, one which deliberately contradicted the popular image of espionage as violent, glamourous, and full of action. His other purpose in writing The Human Factor was his interest in exploring the various contradictions present in international relations, which in the book take the form of British intelligence’s collaboration with the South African security services. The hypocrisy of officially denouncing apartheid while simultaneously working with the South Africans against Communist influence and black African nationalism is a constant theme. Castle’s struggle with the paradox of his work, as he is ordered to grit his teeth and work with the same South African intelligence officer who had threatened to imprison both him and Sarah, provides much of the driving force of the plot.

Greene builds the story slowly and methodically, ratcheting up the tension by careful and agonising degrees as Castle gradually realises the depth of the trap he has laid for himself. The climax culminates in a sickening plot twist that somehow manages to be both unexpected and oddly inevitable, and gives The Human Factor a frustrating but nonetheless realistic ending. Much like his earlier novel The Quiet American, Greene’s primary thematic interest lies in the effects of international politics on the lives of individuals — particularly those who are drawn into the game against their will. And even if one or two moments within the story push at the edges of the reader’s suspension of disbelief, The Human Factor does a very thorough job of stripping the intelligence community of its glamour and reducing it to the cold logic of its outcomes. It feels very plausible, which makes Maurice Castle’s fate all the more sobering to consider after the fact.


Call for the Dead by John Le Carré

9 September 2008

I went on a bit of an espionage kick a few weeks ago, ploughing through several spy novels that I’d been meaning to read for some time now. Now that I’ve finished the lot, it’s time to start posting the reviews.

Call for the Dead by John Le Carré

When an anonymous typewritten letter accuses Samuel Fennan, a civil servant in the Foreign Office, of being a Communist Party member during his time at Oxford, intelligence officer George Smiley is sent to interview Fennan and review his files for any trace of problems in his professional and personal history. Everything appears to be in order, the interview goes well, and Smiley assures Fennan that there is nothing to worry about. Not two days later, however, Fennan is found dead on the floor of his suburban Surrey home, shot through the head. The immediate impression is that Fennan has taken his own life, since the gun was found beneath his body and he had left behind a suicide note which claimed that he was convinced his career was ruined. Elsa, Fennan’s wife, coldly informs George Smiley that her husband had been in a state of near nervous collapse ever since the interview, and that she had found his body lying on the hall floor when she returned from an evening out. Smiley is prepared to accept this explanation and consider the sad matter closed, but when the Fennans’ telephone rings and he answers it, the telephone exchange operator cheerfully informs him that Fennan had requested a call for 8.30 AM that very day. This peculiar telephone call, and a handful of other inexplicable facts — an cup of cocoa left undrunk, a music case left behind in a local theatre — lead Smiley to investigate Fennan’s death more carefully. As he uncovers more inconsistencies, irregularities, and outright lies, Smiley begins to piece together a story that is as much a part of his own past as it is Fennan’s, and comes face to face with a group of individuals who are more than willing to kill again to protect the secrets they have worked so hard to acquire.

Call for the Dead was John Le Carré’s first foray into the spy fiction that would make his name as an author, and the first book to introduce the weary but determined George Smiley and the ‘Circus’, Le Carré’s name for the British intelligence service. In some ways, it is more of a noir-ish detective story than a spy novel, for the spying is often rather peripheral to the plot and at times it reads more like a classic British police procedural than an example of the espionage-based genre. The George Smiley of Call for the Dead is not quite the same George Smiley who stars in Le Carré’s well-known trilogy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People); this Smiley is very much a prototype, slightly less in control of his emotions and slightly more prone to morose musings over the state of his failed marriage to the beautiful but faithless Lady Ann Sercomb. Le Carré would even retcon Smiley’s past for the later books, changing the date of his initial employment with the Circus to prevent his hero from being too old for the action that those books required. As a first draft, though, it provides a thorough introduction to Smiley’s history, and allows Smiley to be a little more active than we see him in the later books — this Smiley is able to survive a beating and still feel confident in his ability to tackle a man who is armed and unquestionably dangerous.

Although Call for the Dead is Le Carré’s first book, it may not be the best book to read as an introduction to the Le Carré world of espionage fiction. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the classic George Smiley book, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and A Perfect Spy are two of the most well-written of his classic works. Yet Call for the Dead has a short, tight plot that keeps the suspense quite high throughout, a fairly satisfying mystery to follow, and several interesting characters (including one of the few Le Carré female characters who actually seems capable of thinking about something other than sex). The rain-soaked, fog-shrouded London of the early 1960s makes a perfect setting for the story, lending the right atmosphere of gloom, foreboding, and slow but inevitable decay that so often provides the backdrop for the works of one of the foremost authors of espionage fiction.


Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

17 June 2008

The fourth and final review of the Penguin Press editions of selected writings by George Orwell, following on from Orwell in Spain, Orwell and the Dispossessed, and Orwell’s England.

(On a fun note, a friend of mine sent me a link to Kate Beaton‘s marvellous comic strip about George Orwell, which I simply have to share.)

Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

The main text in Orwell and Politics is Animal Farm — not 1984, which is what one might expect as the text of choice for a book that focuses primarily on Orwell’s political writings. Either book works, in whatever context, and the choice to look at Animal Farm allowed editor Peter Davison to bring in some letters that deserve to be reprinted in connection with the text. But both books were written relatively late in Orwell’s life, not many years before his death. The bulk of his other political writings deserve just as much attention, if for no other reason than the fact that the essays, review articles, and letters contained in this volume illustrate the formation and development of the ideas that eventually found their expression in his two best-known novels.

Several of the selections in this book explore incidents from Orwell’s time in Burma, serving as a member of the police force that kept colonial rule firmly in place in this outpost of the British Empire. Orwell’s experiences in Burma provided a strong foundation for his interest in socialism and eventually found their way into print in his book Burmese Days. Orwell and Politics also contains the second and third parts of ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ — the first part of which was reprinted in Orwell’s England — which look at how a uniquely ‘English Socialism’ might form a socialist identity free of the ideological weight of Soviet-dictated communism. (Rather interesting that the ‘Ingsoc’ of 1984 would have its roots in a perversion of this idea.) ‘Why I Write’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’, two of Orwell’s finest essays on the uses and abuses of language and political writing, are a notable part of this volume. Several other articles included come from Orwell’s regular column in the left-leaning Tribune newspaper. A number of letters to friends and colleagues round out the book.

One final thing deserves to be mentioned. Towards the end of Orwell and Politics is a particularly fascinating little fragment of writing, penned in May 1949 when Orwell was lying ill with tuberculosis. On it were the names of three dozen writers and artists who he considered to be ‘crypto-communists’ or ‘fellow travellers’, and therefore unsuitable for any work having to do with the creation of anticommunist propaganda. Orwell had written the list for his friend Celia Kirwan, who worked at the Foreign Office — it is now available at the National Archives at Kew in file FO 1110/189. (This New York Review of Books article by Timothy Garton Ash provides more information on the list itself and the circumstances surrounding its creation.) The little snip of information provides a fitting conclusion to Orwell and Politics, a glimpse of one man’s attempt to practise the beliefs he wrote about with such passion and consideration.


The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

8 April 2008

I hadn’t planned to post another work of fiction quite so soon, but this book jumped the queue on me. Mainly because I finished it in about two hours on a rainy day’s commute, and it made for a fast review.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

In mid-1914, the London newspapers are full of ominous reports from the Continent, but Richard Hannay’s uneasiness has little to do with the problems of world affairs. Having made a small fortune in the mines of Rhodesia, he has come to London to see the ‘Old Country’ but finds himself more bored and restless as the days past. Finally, he resolves that he will give London one more day, but if nothing interesting happens to keep him in England then he will leave on the next boat for South Africa. As fortune would have it, upon returning to his flat that night Hannay runs into his upstairs neighbour, an American by the name of Franklin Scudder. Scudder seems badly shaken, and after Hannay gives him a drink to steady his nerves he reveals that he has just had to fake his own death in the flat upstairs — he is being pursued by a very dangerous anarchist group whose plans he has stumbled upon, and the little he reveals to Hannay indicates that this group intends to assassinate a high-ranking Greek politician and spark a massive war that will soon engulf all of Europe. Hannay, more intrigued by the American’s wild story than he initially lets on, agrees to let Scudder hide in his flat for the time being. But when he returns home a few days later and finds Scudder stabbed to death on the floor of his living room, he realises that he is now the anarchists’ next target. Hannay flees London, barely one step ahead of both the police and the anarchists, and sets off on a mission to prevent the assassination from taking place. Yet as he leads his pursuers on a grand chase across England and Scotland, the true nature of the plot becomes more and more clear to him…and, far from completing his mission, he soon finds that it will take all of his wits just to stay alive.

Every fiction genre has to start somewhere, and The Thirty-Nine Steps was one of the first modern adventure-espionage novels, the canonical ancestor of most anything written by Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, and others of their ilk. Modern readers with seemingly more sophisticated literary tastes may find Buchan’s plot conventions to be a little on the thin side, yet compared to some of the abovementioned authors, Buchan’s story is an utter paragon of brevity and fast pacing, with a constantly moving plot and not a shred of unnecessary information. Knowing readers may smirk a bit at how Richard Hannay seems to have just the appropriate combination of personality traits, skills, and knowledge to make him successful in his mission — from a knack for decoding secret messages to an awareness of how to set off dynamite — but again, the means by which Buchan works these character traits into the plot requires far less suspension of disbelief to keep reading than is required by some of the abovementioned authors. What matters most of all is the central theme: that Richard Hannay is a resourceful, clear-headed, extraordinary-ordinary man who alone can stand up to the faceless and unseen enemies and do what those in government and other positions of authority cannot.

When looking at early examples of a particular genre, it is worth noting the story aspects that would later become conventions — and in this case, one aspect that might be easily overlooked is the use of technology as a weapon against which the lone hero must strive. On multiple occasions, Hannay’s pursuers use an airplane (or rather, aeroplane) to hunt for him, and it’s worth considering just how new and thrilling this would have seemed to a reader who picked up a copy of this book in 1915. Airplanes had been invented scarcely more than a decade before the events of the novel, and were a very experimental form of combat even towards the end of World War I; this was advanced technology in Buchan’s day, as advanced as rockets and lasers and satellites and computers would be for the action heroes of a later era. As a forerunner of its kind, The Thirty-Nine Steps sets a particularly high standard to follow, one that has been imitated with varying degrees of success over the years. And though Buchan would later write further accounts of the increasingly fantastic exploits of Richard Hannay, this novel stands by itself as a classic thriller tale of pre-war intrigue.