Friday, August 03, 2012

Books read in August 2012

1. A Deniable Death - Gerald Seymour

My favourite thriller writer has, I fear, let us down a little here. Two men who cannot get along stuck for days in a marsh just inside Iran is not the gripping stuff expected from Seymour. He also seems to let us know his dislike for involvement in Iraq. I also found the rescue of one of the British agents by his colleague to be rather unrealistic.

2. The Outsiders - - Gerald Seymour

International crime syndicates are a greater threat than terrorism but governments spend much less combating them. Russians are the new Mafia and ruthlessly brutal. M16 lost an agent to them in Hungary. His boss is determined to avenge his death no matter how long it takes. She is also not too bothered about arranging an extra-judicial killing. This is not a book for the squeamish.

3. Sacred Hunger Barry Unsworth

This historical novel depicts the slave trade in all its horror contrasting it with the elegant life of contemporary English families. I confess to finding the latter rather like Jane Austen and not really captivating. But the slaving is well described. There is none of the folly of Roots where slavers capture Africans. Here it is properly described as the first leg of the Triangular Trade with slaves bartered for English manufactured goods. I confess I was unaware that merchant seamen were press ganged. They were treated little better than the slaves. The only virtue of the brutal Captain Thurso was that he prohibited rape of or fornication with female slaves. The murderous captain is himself murdered in a mutiny. Slaves are enlisted to help the mutineers beach the ship in Florida where slavers and slaves settle together peaceably interbreeding in their own little colony, even sharing the females. This I found unrealistic and utopian. Other reviewers say the author does not moralise about the trade. He does not have to. He merely portrays it as the result of Sacred Hunger, the love of money. His little settlement with them all conversing in pidgin English I found utopian and not easy to read.

4. Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World by Kwasi Kwarteng

The author's thesis is that there was no unifying pattern to or control of the British Empire. It was run by a small number of public school and Oxbridge educated men, free usually to govern as they saw fit. Six countries are selected, four in Asia, two in Africa, so it is not in any way a comprehensive survey. The author does not subscribe to the common view that all the present day problems of former colonies are the fault of the British but with the benefit of hindsight he does show where mistakes were made. There was racism and snobbery but that was the culture from which the British came. Usually their rule was one of justice and integrity. I found only one factual error. Gowon's father was not a Methodist minister, but an Anglican evangelist.

5.  The Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service by Gordon Corera

The work of MI6 since WW2 is a fascinating subject. It gripped me as far as 9/11 when it became thin and the Iraq war part was by comparison with earlier stories, boring. The book starts with post was Vienna. What were the Soviets planning to do. his question dominates the work of MI6 until the end of the Cold War. There is a brief chapter on Lumumba in the Congo but one man dominates all the early chapters, Kim Philby, This master spy as responsible for the deaths of countless agents but remained unrepentant to the day of his death. I cannot with Graham Greene admire his commitment to his cause, rather with Le Carre I would refuse to shake a hand dripping with blood. MI6 seems to have had more success with defectors who walked in rather than agents it recruited. The most amazing was Gordievsky with his contribution to the end os the Cold War and the thrilling story of him smuggled out of the USSR. The account of MI6 involvement in Afghanistan against the Russians is an eye opener. The big missing campaign is Northern Island but I think that is because it would be MI5's responsibility. The ethical dimensions of the spys work are well considered.

6. Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa

The author's family are from the south of Nigeria and she writes well concerning that part but he chapters on the north are those of an outsider. THe early chapters on Lagos are most informative as to life, culture and history. The endemic corruption is explained and described but as expected, no solution can be offered. The religiosity of the south is well documented but there is no analysis of different strands of Islam in the north. This is all the more lamentable as she goes to Maiduguri but never mentions Boko Haram. She really is a mere tourist in the north. She never visits a local Muslim family so cannot give an understanding of purdah. There is a basic mistake in the chapter on Sukur where the local town is Madagali not Magadali. I will also question her idea that the Protestant work ethic was devised to facilitate labour in the dark satanic mills, or that the Muslim minority in Britain is small enough as to be insignificant. If the book had an index I would give you the page reference, but sadly, no index. Read this book for information on Nigeria today, but having read it I will be very surprised if you want to visit.

7Who Was Jack the Stripper?: The Hammersmith Nudes' Murders by Neil Milkins

Harold Jones who at the age of 15 was sent down for a life sentence having killed two girls in Abertillery lived close to the chief suspect in the Hammersmith nudes murders. The police never knew so never investigated Jones. Milkins produces much circumstantial and coincidental evidence but the police files are sealed. The author writes without sensationalism and with sensitivity for the families of victims and killers alike.

8. Five Days in London: May 1940 by John Lukacs 

The author tells us that in these five days WW2 could have been lost save for the determination of Churchill. Our army was in retreat and on the point of destruction at Dunkirk. The country was blissfully unaware of how bad things were. It is fascinating how the author reports government surveys of daily morale. Never again will the populace be so ignorant on an imminent peril. The book asks the whys and what ifs. Why did Hitler halt his army before its work was done? Why did he turn on Russia. What if we had accepted peace terms as Halifax counselled? One is left thanking God that we were led by a man who realised that it would be better to go down fighting than to submit to tyranny. We stood alone save for the help of our Empire. The USA was giving no help with the former bootlegger, Kennedy as its London ambassador. The writings of Churchill and Halifax do not tell us the inside story of those darkest days. This book does. My only criticism is his final comparison of Churchill to Canute seeking to hold back the tide. Canute's action was to show he could not withstand the force of the creator. Churchill did hold back the tide of Hitler. Without Churchill the second half of the 20th century would have been very very dark.

9. From Kabul with Love by Howard Harper 

From 1954 when he went to Pakistan as a missionary, until his father's death in 1976, New Zealander, Howard Harper corresponded with his father in New Zealand. Their letters provide an unusual form of missionary biography. After a few months studying Urdu, Howard decides the way ahead is to move to the UK and study to become a doctor despite not having the academic requirements to enter medical school. Eight years later, qualified as a doctor and married to Monika a German nurse, they drive back to Pakistan, seeing en route the possibility of work in Afghanistan. Stan, Howard's pharmacist father is a great support with godly counsel and finances despite the sadness of separation from his wife. In 1966, after three years in Pakistan, the family, with their first daughter, move to Kabul. His work is mainly ophthalmic so later that year the family is in England for more study and in 1967 Howard is awarded the Diploma of Ophthalmology. The family return to Kabul with a second daughter. Howard's background and original support was from Christian Brethren but in Afghanistan the work involved people from different backgrounds and while the family were on leave in New Zealand in 1969 tensions arose so Howard returned briefly alone. The whole family then came to England by sea for Howard to take the FRCS qualification. Monika and their three daughters flew back to Kabul but in late 1970 Howard once again drove to Afghanistan. After two years of medical work his mission wanted him to resign. The letters do not give details but it is the same time that the government demolished the only church building allowed in the country. THe family were expelled but after the coup which removed the Afghan king, they managed to return for less than a year before their second expulsion. Instead they served in Iran for two years. Stan Harper died in 1976 so there the letters end but the epilogue chapter tells how after the fall of the USSR Howard set up eye care programmes with the governments of four former Soviet republics and resumed work in Afghanistan.

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