Adventures in Bookland: Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

April 17th, 2017

Among writers of historical fiction, Eagle in the Snow has achieved semi-legendary status. It was first published in 1970 and, largely through recommendation, has remained in print ever since (no small feat in itself when the author, Wallace Breem, died in 1990).

It’s the subtlety and mood of the book that gives it its power and creates its status. It’s the story of the dying of things: empires, men, armies, a civilisation. It’s the story of a man born out of time, fighting against the dying of the light. It’s a story of the end of Rome suffused with the nostalgia for fallen things that is a legacy of the northern tribes that defeated the Empire and replaced it on this island. That’s the unspoken, because never acknowledged, paradox at the heart of this book. While there were elements of nostalgia for a lost golden age in Roman civilisation, the twilight mood of Eagle in the Snow is a product of a people and a writer whose civilisation rests upon three supports: the Classical tradition of Rome and Greece, the Judeo-Christian and the foreshadowing of ultimate loss that results from the Ragnarok of the Anglo-Saxons. So this is a book of the defeat of a civilisation that is made into the work of art that it is by the worldview of the civilisations that defeated and supplanted it.

Adventures in Bookland: Fire In Babylon by Simon Lister

April 17th, 2017

It was the August of 1976. The sun burned down from a sky that had turned bronze in the heat. Grass, everywhere, was brown and parched. There had been no rain for two months, and for the last six weeks the temperature had barely dropped below 90F. It was the most memorable summer of my young life and, 13, I was going with my father to see the cricket.

But not just any cricket. Although my father is Sri Lankan, we were not going to see Sri Lanka play England (for the very good reason that Sri Lanka was not yet a Test-rated country). We were going to see England play the West Indies – and we were going to see them at the Oval, for the final Test match of the summer. England were already 2-0 down, and playing for pride and self-preservation. And when I say self-preservation, it really was. The West Indies deployed a truly fearsome array of fast bowlers in that match: Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel; and this was in the days before batsmen wore helmets, or indeed much in the way of protection beyond pads, gloves and box. It really was a matter of self-preservation. The pitch was a dustbowl, burned the colour of African mud.

We arrived at the Oval to find it ringing, vibrant with West Indian fans playing instruments, singing and dancing. But I was a serious, studious boy – something of the archetype of the Asian school swot. We settled down at mid-wicket, with our drinks and our sandwiches, and waited for the day to begin.

And what I remember even today, 41 years later, is watching Michael Holding gliding over the ground as he ran in to bowl, moving as smoothly as liquid mercury, and then the leap into the bowling stride, a single puff of dust as the bowl struck the pitch, and an image of the batsman, contorted into some position of avoidance or defence. Even with my young, sharp eyes, I never once saw the ball moving through the air, but only the effects it had on wicket and man.

There has never been a team like that West Indies team, that came into itself on that tour of England in 1976 and then proceeded to dominate international cricket for nearly the next 20 years. This marvellous book tells the story of how they reached that position of dominance and, much more difficult, how they kept it for so long. It’s a tale of resistance, revolt, and hours and hours and hours of sheer bloody hard work made to seem completely effortless in the smoothness of Michael Holding’s run up or Viv Richard’s lifting the ball to the boundary for 6. It’s a tale of all the once-colonial peoples, such as my father’s Sri Lankans, realising that they really could match and beat the English who had given them these games. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come from the everyday racism of the 1970s. And it manages to do all this through the medium of grown men throwing and hitting a ball around for interminable periods of time. Cricket is one-on-one combat in a team context; it’s gladiatorial and, despite all the talk of the spirit of cricket, inherently confrontational, veiling its violence behind its pristine whites. It’s the most perfect game and also the most ridiculous. And this is one of the best books I’ve read about it.


Adventures in Bookland: The Road from Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva

April 16th, 2017

This is a book about civil war and reaching across the bloodlines of that war; it’s a book about making a desperate journey through jungle; it’s a book about birds and animals and plants; it’s a book about Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, the teardrop shed by the Indian subcontinent, is a land that was drenched in tears for the 25 years of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Estimates suggest that over 150,000 people, military and civilian, were killed during the war. The war was essentially fought over the Tigers’ demand for a separate Tamil state – Eelam – within Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lanka government’s refusal to countenance such an idea.

My father is Sri Lankan. Unusually, his mother was Sinhala (the majority and predominantly Buddhist part of the population) and his father was Tamil (the minority Hindu section of the country, who mainly live in the north and east of the country). Even back when my grandparents were married (and this was a long time ago, around 1916), such marriages were rare and faced much hostility. My grandmother’s parents, who were high-caste Sinhala, largely cut-off contact with their daughter after her marriage: my father only met his grandparents once.

Under British colonial rule, these tensions were subsumed but when Ceylon gained independence on 4 February 1948, the Sinhala majority moved towards asserting their political control of the country, most notably by making Sinhala the state language. Since Tamil is not just a different language but uses a different script, this effectively threw many Tamils out of work.

Tamil separatist organisations began to spring up, of which the most important was the one organized by Velupillai Prabhakaran that became the LTTE. As attacks mounted, from both sides, the political tension worsened until full-scale civil war broke out in 1983. The war continued for 25 years, with the Tigers for much of that time controlling huge tracts of Sri Lanka in a parallel administration. A ruthlessly efficient organisation, the Tigers were the first group to develop the use of suicide bombers, and using them assassinated two heads of state: Rajiv Gandhi of India and Ranasinghe Premadasa, president of Sri Lanka.

This book was written in 2000, when it seemed the war would never end. The author, Nihal de Silva, examines the justifications and reasons for the war through his two main characters: a captain in the Sri Lankan army and a female cadre of the Tigers. The captain, Wasantha, is detailed with the job of conveying Kamala, a Tiger cadre turned informer, to Colombo so she can pass on vital information. But when the Tigers attack, the mis-matched pair are forced to go to ground, and then attempt to make their way south on foot, marching through the no-man’s land of Wilpattu National Park.

The depiction of the arid scrub of the north, a land pockmarked by the reservoirs dug by the ancient kings of Sri Lanka to irrigate the land, is excellent and the author’s knowledge of the flora and fauna shines through. The description of rural Sri Lanka, as the couple make their way through dirt-poor villages and abandoned tracks, is among the best I’ve read. And while Wasantha and Kamala head south, hunted by predators both human and animal, the author skillfully presents both sides of the conflict through their interaction.

The ending, when it comes, is tense, and shocking. It’s the ending appropriate to a land still at war without apparent end. But, in the end, there was an end. The Sri Lankan army, reorganised and rejuvenated, drove the Tigers into smaller and smaller pockets of territory and eventually destroyed the leadership, but at the price of many civilian lives.

Nihal de Silva did not live to see the war’s ending. He was killed by a landmine while visiting his beloved Wilpattu National Park, the scene of so much of this work. The Road From Elephant Pass is his memorial, and it’s an eloquent one.


Me, Speaking

April 13th, 2017

Yes, it’s me, speaking at Prinknash Abbey on Tuesday 25 April at 10.30am. I’m really looking forward to this as I’ll get to spend the previous day and night with the monks of the abbey before giving my talk on the Tuesday. If you’re anywhere nearby, do come along (and I’ll sign as many books as you want!).


Adventures in Bookland: The Unsettled Dust by Robert Aickman

April 2nd, 2017

The blood came from his nose and would not be staunched. He had gone through all the handkerchiefs in his drawer, using them first as plugs and then as clamps, but still he could feel, and taste, the iron warmth. He sat at the window of his apartment, the handkerchief clutched to his face slowly staining red, and looked out at the setting sun staining the cloud in its passing.

It was always so, when the sun set in splendour. The night would bring darkness and cease. His nose would stop bleeding and he could finish his work, the tedious reports that were the cross of his career as a reasonably important servant of civil society. The newspaper lay on the desk in front of the table. The weather report, with its promise of heavy cloud, was circled. He would write to the editor tomorrow, pointing out the inaccuracy of the report. Perhaps the television stations had carried a more up-to-date report, but he did not take television: a radio was the limit of his engagement with modern media.

That, and a telephone. He had had to telephone her to put her off. He had indicated that she might visit after he had finished his report; the Berliner Philharmoniker was playing Mahler 6 and he would want company after hearing that. But the nose bleed made an evening listening to music, even music as enveloping as Mahler, impossible. He would be waiting, feeling for the warm trickle in his nose and upper lip. But if he opened his window, he should be able to hear some of the performance; that which the city pulled away he could fill in, for he knew the music in his head.

The entryphone buzzed.

“Robert, are you in?”

She had come, despite his message that she should not.

“Robert, I’m sure you’re there. Will you let me in?”

He watched the small screen until, in the end, she went away. It was as well that no one else had tried to come in to the flats while she was waiting at the main door; then she would have been knocking on his door.

Opening the window, he felt the wash of city air. But it carried the strains of Mahler 6, soaring above traffic and radios and scurrying movement. He listened, for the moment forgetting the blood, and the sun setting, but becoming only a creature of hearing and imagination and memory, for often he had to fill in lacunae with the music of his mind. The Philharmoniker played the Scherzo before the Andante, as he preferred. The Finale drained into the darkness that spread over the city. He listened to the silence and did not move, even when the blood began to flow once more.

(A review in the style of one of Aickman’s stories.)


Adventures in Bookland: Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell

March 28th, 2017

Although they share titles, this is not the book of Steven Spielberg’s film despite the fact that they both deal with the same incident: the first spy exchange of the Cold War. On 10 February 1962, Rudolf Abel (as he gave his name) was exchanged for Francis Gary Powers, the two men walking past each other across the Glienicke Bridge on the outskirts of West Berlin as men on either side of the River Havel watched the silent passage through telescopic sights.

Spielberg’s film concentrates very much on the relationship between Rudolf Abel and the lawyer, James Donovan, who defended him when he was brought to trial on espionage charges – and then the unlikely turn that saw the same James Donovan charged with negotiating the exchange of Abel for Gary Powers, the U2 pilot shot down on 1 May 1960 (plus another American, Frederic Pryor, a student who unwittingly got caught up on the wrong side of the newly-built Berlin Wall and who became a pawn in international power politics).

Whittell’s book is much more wide ranging, spending as much time on Gary Powers as Rudolf Abel, while devoting only a couple of pages to Donovan and the trial. More than fifty years later, it’s salutary to remember just how dangerous the world was then, with two superpowers in ideological confrontation, each armed with nuclear weapons. It’s tempting to see our own times of Islamist terrorism as uniquely bad but really there’s no comparison. During the Cold War, a misstep or a misunderstanding could have unleashed nuclear hell upon us all. Today’s terrorists are reduced to driving a car at pedestrians. So this book is an excellent corrective and a fine and exciting piece of historical writing, bringing together spying, spy planes and high-tension international politics. If you’ve seen Spielberg’s film, it’s well worth reading for a broader and deeper understanding of what went on and why.

Adventures in Bookland: Argo by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio

March 28th, 2017

I was a little concerned, picking up this book, to see that it is co-written by Matt Baglio. I’ve read one of Baglio’s books, The Rite, in which he achieved what I’d thought impossible: he made exorcism boring. So I was worried he’d manage the impossible yet again, and make the exfiltration of diplomats in hiding from revolutionary Iran in the guise of Hollywood filmmakers into something tedious as well. Luckily, he doesn’t. Thankfully, much of the book is actually written by Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who planned and carried out the operation to fly six Americans in hiding out of Iran in 1980, when the revolutionary regime was holding the staff of the American embassy hostage. In fact, Mendez has recycled much of the paper he wrote about the exfiltration for the CIA house journal, Studies in Intelligence, into the book, often simply pasting it into the relevant chapter. However, he does add some very interesting autobiographical and background material to the early chapters. I for one find it fascinating that a talented artist, as Mendez is, ended up working for the CIA, first in creating and forging documents but then as a high-level agent himself.

In fact, the main problem with the book is how good an agent he was. The simple fact is that the exfilration of the six Americans who got away from the embassy and then had remained in hiding in houses belonging to Canadian diplomats went almost exactly according to plan, with the Iranian regime not getting even a hint of what was going on (in contrast to the disastrous attempt to rescue the rest of the hostages). The film changed things to up the tension levels, from having the six go out into Teheran to pretend to search for film locations (Mendez had concocted a cover story that they’d flown in to search for locations for an upcoming Hollywood sci-fi film called Argo) to Iranian officials racing to intercept them as they got on the plane. In reality, it was as smooth an operation as anyone could have wished. What makes it so interesting are the details. One in particular made me laugh. When they landed in Zurich, Mendez gave his coat to one of the six, who were then all promptly hustled away to be returned to America. Mendez himself was scolded on his return by the finance department for losing his government issued coat!

Although the film does take liberties, it’s well worth watching for its recreation of revolutionary Iran. Mendez himself appreciated the film, as indeed would I, if I’d been in his place. Let’s take a look at the man who played Mendez, Ben Affleck.

And then let’s look at Tony Mendez.

Good deal!

Adventures in Bookland: The Locomotive of War by Peter Clarke

March 28th, 2017

It’s not about trains. Let’s get that clear from the start. But having worked through the book’s 358 pages, this reviewer is not entirely sure he can tell the prospective reader what the book is about. Usually, a book’s subtitle is there to explain to the browser what he or she will find on its pages but in this case, ‘Money, Empire, Power and Guilt’ is so wide ranging as to include almost everything.

So, in his quest to uncover the book’s true meaning, your reviewer referred back to the prologue, where the author tells us what the book is about. It doesn’t help a great deal, although it does tell us where the title comes from: it’s a quote from Trotsky, but modified. He originally said, “War, Comrades, is a great locomotive of history.” So, is this a book about war as the driver of history?

No, not really. Yes, it deals with World War I, but the conflict itself remains largely off the page. The chapter titles are a better clue as to the book’s nature: ‘The Disciple as Prophet: Thomas Woodrow Wilson’; ‘Goodbye to the Garden of Eden: John Maynard Keynes’.

Yes, this is a book about people. But very specific people: some of the key political figures of the First World War in Britain and America – all of whom knew each other. This is a book about how the political beliefs and personal characteristics of a small number of people successively involved Britain and America in war. For what Clarke makes clear is how it was the particular response of leaders such as Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George to events such as the German invasion of neutral Belgium, a response shaped by their formation in the liberal tradition of William Gladstone, that produced the moral outrage that led Britain into war, and later drew America into the conflict.

As such, it’s a forensic examination of the causes of war within a very narrow focus. This narrow focus requires of the reader a reasonably broad knowledge of the political personalities of early-20th century Britain and America to avoid frequent Wikipedia stops. It does, however, allow the author some cutting asides. Clarke’s note on how Edward Grey – the Foreign Secretary remembered for “the lamps are going out” quote – under the strain of impending war ascended to his only two days of eloquence in an allotted span of near three score years and ten, is wonderful and one of a number of quotes worthy a place in future collections.

The curious effect of Clarke’s close examination of such a limited number of individuals is that the book, surely without meaning to, almost becomes a modern restatement of Carlyle’s great man theory of history (where history is the result of the actions and decisions of great men, rather than being the consequence of a vast range of events and individuals). Clarke does take care to place the ‘great men’ here portrayed within the context of the liberal tradition of thinking as espoused by Gladstone, so it’s a modified ‘great man’ exposition, but the reader will be hard pressed to conclude, after reading this book, anything other than that history’s locomotive is driven by a very few men (and they are all men).

This is unlikely to have been the author’s intention.


Letter to a Friend Whose Father had Died

March 20th, 2017

I wrote this letter many years ago to a friend whose father had died. I think it has something to say, so I reproduce it here.

My dear friend,

It has been two months since your father died. Now is the time when friends become unsure whether to speak or remain silent. Perhaps it would be better to keep quiet about the dead, let them sleep their sleep, and allow the waves of time to slowly smooth away the marks of memory and loss. For now, inevitably, the overwhelming physicality of new grief will have died away to some extent. Now there may be minutes, hours even, when you forget that your father has died and then the memory returns and perhaps you think that if even you, his son, cannot keep his memory alive, then what will happen ten years from now. I suppose this is one of the most difficult things about the dead; one knows that they will never again come and remind us of themselves, of their overwhelming suchness, of the fact that each and every one of those who have died was once alone and unique, and there will never again be their like in this world.

I remember when my Auntie Dottie died. She was the last of my father’s sisters, the slightly eccentric old spinster who had never married. Well, in her later years Auntie Dottie defied all the expectations one might have of an ageing spinster by moving to Italy to work as the housekeeper for an old Italian. Expectations were even further astounded when she went and married him. ‘There’s juice in the old girl, yet,’ one might have said.

But I do not want to be sentimental about her. Auntie Dottie was a lovely person, kind and gentle and slightly vague. Yet one could also say that she was ineffectual, that the world marked her passing even less than it had marked her presence. Like so many many others she will be forgotten when those who had known her are themselves dead. It will be as if she never existed. There are no children, no traces of her presence in the continuing blood of others. So what does her life mean? It means, if meaning is to be found in terms of worldly effect, virtually nothing. She, like so many others, was one of the extras in the movie of history, one of the people who appears briefly on the screen and then disappears, and is not even mentioned in the credits at the end of the film.

But this is not true. For if it were then we too would be fools and idiots playing in a shadow show for the drooling amusement of idiot gods. But an idiot god could not have made Auntie Dottie, nor the blind and stupid forces of chance and necessity. No, she was held in being as gently as a child holds a puppy when it is first given to him and knows that this squirming licking ball of life is his to look after.

Is this not the reason for the extraordinary uniqueness of each and every created thing? That when first they are held, cupped in being, there is again the sense that that which was not, now is. It is alive, it exists and it is itself and no other.

Then this also must be true. It cannot be that all the things that have their existence have been brought into being for any reason other than a love that passes all our understanding and yet we know well. For think now of how it was when your daughter was born. And then imagine how it will be in the years to come. There will be times, no doubt, when she will irritate and anger you, yet in memory those will fade away quickly yet that which is in her and in you, causing the love between father and daughter to grow, that will be remembered.

And this I think is the essence of it. Here I believe the action of our memory mirrors the structure of reality in its deepest nature. That which is beautiful does not fade away. It remains in our memory as a trace of what caused it.

Nothing beautiful ever dies. Nothing good passes away. Because they are the only things that are real in the first place. Ugliness and evil, these are illusions and like all illusions they must disappear when the conditions from which one views them disappears. And this illusion is life, when viewed as restricted to our passage from the womb to the grave. We no more come into existence at birth than we leave it at death for I do not hold my existence in my hands. No, I am held in the arms of another.

Think of this letter. The thoughts take form in the words I write. But once it is finished the letter will be taken to the post office and pass through the hands of many others, over land and sea and time, until finally you will sit and read it on a night and in a place far removed. Yet in the reading I will be with you again.

So it is with all of us. As you hold your daughter in your arms, and you were once held by your parents, and they by their parents, and so on through all the generations of mankind back to the first parents of our kind, so we can trace our writing back to the mind of God.

Nothing beautiful ever dies. Nothing good passes away. The flower blossoming for a day on the slopes of an unknown mountain is seen, the song of a bird on a lonely island is heard, the myriad lives that have passed unremarked by that whore we call history are known. There are no extras. Each spear carrier is a hero and everyone is a star.

With all my best wishes,



The Last Solderslinger

March 17th, 2017

For many years, I worked repairing TVs and videos, driving around in my white van. It was a family business, and it had kept us all gainfully employed for twenty years or so. But sometime in the late 1990s we realised that our days wielding the soldering iron and the Avometer were numbered. Most of the other repairmen, men who had started when you could warm a house from the heat generated by the thermionic valves in the back of a television, also lay down their irons around this time. I wrote this piece for us all.

Cyril Dennis retires after 53 years repairing TVs.

The last solderslinger drove out of town. It was showdown time. The Cyber Cowboy was going to pay. Twenty one years ago the last solderslinger had rolled into the city, sniffed the petrol in the air, and settled down to raising kids. Now the young whippersnappers thought they could steal stock from right under his nose. Well, today they were going to see the old timer still had a few tricks left in his toolbox.

The solderslinger pulled up in his Transit outside the new ‘light industrial unit’. Things sure had changed since he started riding the range twenty one years ago.

Striding towards his enemy’s stronghold, he remembered his first van: £4141 in 1980. Then only this year he had gotten a brand new transit from Dan Dan the Van Man for £11926.

But in that time his stock, ah, his stock. The first time, alone and nervous, he had gone out to see a sick TV was in 1980. There were three TV channels and BBC 1 played the national anthem shortly after midnight and went to bed like decent folk. And the TV, a Sony KV2204, complete with Trinitron tube and plastic wood appearance fascia, that fine piece of livestock had cost £530. Now a Sony KV21X5 went for £260.

Then his stock was 12.8% the cost of his nag. Now it was 2.2%. If he wanted to keep his ranch he was going to have to take out the Cyber Cowboy.

The last solderslinger burst through the doors, solder gun in one hand, Avometer in the other.

‘Come on then, you varmints, eat solder!’

The Cyber Cowboy looked up, startled. On the bench before him, innards indecently displayed to the watching world, lay a Sony KV28-DX30 hissing in pain from the torture instruments plunged deep inside its gizzards.

‘What are you no good son of a bitch doing to that there TV?’ demanded the last solderslinger, waving his gun menacingly.

‘Er, repairing it?’ said the Cyber Cowboy, some little whippersnapper who looked like he’d never even gotten a decent electric shock when disconnecting the EHT lead.

‘Sure,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘How?

‘Well, I just hook it up to the PC and it runs a set of diagnostics and then I do what it tells me to do,’ said the Cyber Cowboy.

‘Pah,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘Call that repair? Bet that gear costs thousands. Give it here and I’ll sort it with my Avometer in an hour flat.’

‘What’s an Avometer?’ asked the Cyber Cowboy.


A little while later the solderslinger sat in his van. He had lost. They had taken away his solder gun and Avometer and given him an application form for a training course in basic IT skills for the over-fifties.

He opened his flask and drank, but the milk tasted sour. No longer the last solderslinger, just the millionth mousketeer.

He got out of the van, went to the back and scratched a couple of words in the dirt, then got in and drove away.

‘For sale.’

A soldering iron.

An Avometer.