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Autumn reading: six stories from an anxious world

November 15, 2016

For the second time this year I happened to be away from home when a great political event took place. On Brexit day I was in France. This time, when Trump triumphed, I was ten days into a holiday in Thailand. It was an appropriate place to witness from afar a political death. The country has just lost its king. Memorials to the longest-reigning monarch in the world were to be seen on street corners, in public buildings, in restaurants and hotels.

King Bhumibol was an emotional anchor for a country wracked for most of his reign by political instability culminating in regular military interventions. He was their talisman. Whatever pain the generals, the demagogues and the corrupt elite might have inflicted on his people, he was there for them – a model of wisdom, benevolence and rectitude, willing to intervene on their behalf not through constitutional right but through authority that comes from respect.

The sense of loss, of an era coming to an end, of uncertainty about the future, was not just reflected in the official period of mourning declared by the military leadership. It was personal. Thais speak about the monarch not as “the King” or “our King”, but as “my King”. Pictures of him at work and play adorn homes as well as public places, as if he was a member of his subjects’ families as well as the national icon.

Now the rest of us join the Thais in wondering what comes next. Whether or not I was unconsciously influenced by deep foreboding on account of Brexit, which I deplore, the books I chose to bring with me reflected previous times when the world has turned upside down, and the effect of turmoil on individuals, families and groups within societies.

I didn’t deliberately choose those themes, but I guess they reflected a state of mind that should be evident from most of what I’ve written in this blog over the past six months. At the risk of sounding pompous, the certainty that I have less time left than I have already lived causes me to spend more time trying to make sense of what has led to now, of why now is what it is, and what future nows might unfold.

So for those of you who might share similar preoccupations, here’s a brief summary of the six books I’ve read over the past couple of weeks. Not a dud among them, but not a barrel of laughs either.


East West Street. A deeply moving account by Phillipe Sands, an eminent barrister and professor of law, who pieces together the history of his Jewish family from their origins in Lemburg (also known as Lviv and latterly Lvov). He intertwines the lives of four men and their families. Three of them lived few streets away from each other: his maternal grandfather, Leon Bucholtz, along with Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin. The latter two were lawyers who subsequently had a profound influence on the development of international law. The fourth person was Hans Frank, Hitler’s viceroy in charge of Poland and the other occupied territories in the East.

As a member of the team of lawyers preparing for the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leadership, Lauterpacht created the concept of crimes against humanity. Lemkin first coined the term genocide. Although Lemkin’s concept was not universally accepted by the four powers represented at Nuremberg (for fear that the term being used to describe earlier historical events of which the victors were not proud) the two lawyers were authors of two enduring planks of international law, even though they didn’t see eye to eye on the details. Lauterpacht was focused on crimes in terms of their effects on individuals. Lemkin believed that prosecutions for war crimes should be conducted on the basis of crimes against groups.

In Sands’ narrative, all roads led to Nuremburg. For Frank, the trial ended with the death sentence. At the time of the trials neither lawyer was aware of the fate of their extended families and Frank’s part in it. Only subsequently did they and Leon Bucholtz discover that their loved ones were among more than two thousand residents of nearby Zolkiev who rounded up, shot and buried in a forest outside the town. Other family members ended up at the Treblinka death camp.

When we talk blithely about a world turned upside down in the wake of Trump’s election, we should read this book and consider the fate of Lemburg/Lviv/Lvov, a city that over thirty years ended up by treaty or through invasion within the borders of three separate states, and whose population suffered endless turmoil.

You don’t have to be Jewish and to have been robbed of a normal family history to appreciate the legacy of Lemkin and Lauterpacht. Thanks in large part to the work of two outstanding lawyers, tyrants, warlords and their foot-soldiers know that today there is an International Criminal Court waiting for the opportunity to reward them for their efforts.

Although East West Street is an invaluable primer of the origins of international criminal law, in essence it’s a book about individuals and their stories, eloquently told by an author who has through his work encountered more than his fair share of inhumanity. To that extent, you sense that Lauterpacht, with his emphasis on the individual, is the greater influence on Sands as he weaves together the strands of human tragedy and survival in this impressive and compassionate book.


SAS: Rogue Heroes – The Authorised Wartime History. A rattling yarn about Britain’s Special Air Services (SAS) in the Second World War. Ben MacIntyre, who specialises in “untold stories” from that war, was given access to the SAS diaries that document every operation the organisation undertook from its foundation in the North African campaign through to the end of the war. Full of eccentrics, psychotics and feats of incredible bravery. At the heart of the SAS founding ethos was training and planning – conventional military virtues – overlaid with improvisation, versatility, team spirit and determination up to the limits of human capability. It’s a template that has survived in special forces to this day.

The saddest part of the book was the long list at the end of those who didn’t survive – victims of battles against the odds, cock-ups and Hitler’s policy that all captured commandos should be shot. There are also poignant stories of those who did survive and couldn’t adjust, including Paddy Mayne, one of Britain’s most decorated soldiers. A hard-drinking international rugby player and solicitor, he died within ten years of the end of the war, after running his car into the back of a farmer’s truck at the end of a late-night drinking session.


Purity. Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel – dense, intense, intricately plotted and with a rich array of three-dimensional characters. It’s a story about relationships between mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, set in California, Bolivia, East Germany and Colorado. The themes are enduring, and the main characters revel themselves in increasing depth as the story progresses. What more could you ask for? This is my first Franzen novel, and it’s as good as anything I’ve read for years.


Conclave. Robert Harris’s latest tale, in which he describes a papal conclave – the process to elect a new pope. Full of arcane details, skulduggery and unholy ambition punctuated with unexpected external interventions – acts of God, you might say if you were one of the cardinals locked into the Sistine Chapel for interminable rounds of inconclusive voting.

Harris is one of those novelists I can count on not to disappoint. I’ve read most of his previous stuff. Conclave isn’t his very best – I rate his Cicero novels higher – but the story races along, and has an interesting if slightly unbelievable final twist.


The Plot Against America. Philip Roth’s 2004 novel is about what might have happened if the Nazi-sympathising aviator Charles Lindbergh, running on an isolationist platform, had taken on and defeated Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. It was frequently cited during the US election campaign, which is why I decided to read it. With exquisite timing, I started it the day before the election, and finished it the day after.

It’s a tale of insidious anti-semitism. Roth’s own family is ripped apart as one side takes the view that things won’t really be that bad, and the other foresees an apocalypse. As Britain takes on Germany alone, we readers know what is about to happen in occupied Europe, but the Jews of America oscillate between denial and resistance.

The parallels are obvious. Did Hitler have a hold on Lindbergh? For Hitler and Lindbergh, read Putin and Trump. Even if Roth’s novel was written from the perspective of a Jewish family in New Jersey, and today there are many other targets of Trump’s wrath, we are seeing the same sentiment of cautious optimism. Trump will draw back from his campaign rhetoric, won’t he?. Things will turn out OK, won’t they? Until they don’t.

In Roth’s tale they do eventually work out. With Trump we will have to wait and see.


The Maisky Diaries: The Wartime Revelations of Stalin’s Ambassador in London. Ivan Maisky was the Soviet ambassador to the UK between 1932 and 1943. The very fact that he survived in his post for that length of time shows that he was an extraordinary individual. Stalin’s purges carried off many of his high-ranking colleagues, and he too came close to disaster. He was extraordinary not just because of his survival skills. He cultivated relationships across Britain’s political and literary spectrum. As evidence by the diaries, he was a highly accomplished writer. He was a man of letters and a lover of the arts.

His diaries are fascinating because they offer the perspective on English society of an outsider who was capable of donning the mask of an insider. He was aware that everything he wrote would at some stage be read by the leadership in Moscow, and would be used in evidence if he ended up as the accused in a show trial. He was therefore careful to bend the knee to ideology. Often, if he wished to make a point in his dispatches to Moscow that Stalin might not appreciate, he was careful to attribute those views to one of his British contacts. But you still get the sense that if you had sat down with him beyond the earshot of informers, he might have revealed the soul of a man who was a bolshevik only by convenience.

The politicians he describes in the run-up to the war are, with a few exceptions, a complacent and deluded lot. Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare come in for the worst of Maisky’s scorn. Subsequent events proved him right. His favourites were Lloyd George and Churchill. Lloyd George, as the elder statesman, was never afraid to share his views with anyone prepared to listen, and he undoubtedly helped Maisky to better understand the subtleties of British politics. The relationship the envoy formed with Churchill long before the war was based more on respect than affection. It was clear to him that here was a man with more backbone than most of his peers put together.

For those of us not privy to the often tortuous complexity of international diplomacy, Maisky gives a fascinating blow-by-blow account of the shifting sands of negotiations between the German, British, Soviet and French governments in the run-up to the Second World War. In those days communications were mainly by notes, telegrams and letters and often conducted through the subtle intermediation of the ambassador. Summits were rarities, and even high-ranking envoys like Maisky would make interminable rail trips to attend international conferences, such as meetings of the League of Nations in Geneva. A far cry from shuttle diplomacy, which seems to have reduced all but the most influential modern ambassadors to the status of bag carriers.

Maisky fell foul of his masters in the end, during a late flowering of Stalin’s reign of terror. He was accused of being a British spy. He came within an inch of the firing squad, but was saved by the death of the leader. He still ended up in jail for five years, and remained in disgrace until the Sixties. But he died at the ripe old age of ninety-one, despite predicting in his diary that he wouldn’t make it past his seventh decade.

It’s a fascinating read, excellently edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky, who rediscovered the diaries in 1993. He provides illuminating commentary throughout.

A pretty heavy selection for a holiday, you might think, and you’d be right. But if ever a time could be said to be ordinary, this sin’t it.

A final note: the links to Amazon are not sponsored. I include them for convenience, not as a recommendation to buy from the site. There are still a few independent booksellers out there, though sadly the last one in my town closed recently. Don’t let them all die.

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