Category Archives: Personal

Four More Books on Espionage

Seasonal greetings to all my readers – especially those who joined the group this year! Among new contacts is one former officer of an intelligence service, who very kindly wrote, about ‘Sonia’s Radio’: “It’s the most impressive counter intelligence research/historiography I’ve read – the web of known and suspected affiliations is masterly.”

And now you can help spread the word! In a survey of a thousand households of recent retirees across the European Union, commissioned by the Coldspur Appreciation Society, residents were asked to list the Top Ten Items on their Bucket List. Here are the consolidated results (after some flattening of rankings according to the Ogden-Zeiss method of Flawed Preference Detection): ‘Reading “Sonia’s Radio”’ was pipped out of first place by ‘Visiting Machu Picchu’, but pushed ‘Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef’ into third position. A great outcome!

Machu Picchu
(First Place)

‘Sonia’s Radio’
(Second Place)

Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef
(Third Place)

So all you have to do, laid out in five easy steps:

And you will immediately have made another close friend or relative very happy!

 

And now to those books  . . .

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre (Crown New York, 2018)

Traitor Lodger German Spy by Tony Rowland (APS Publications, 2018)

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Little Brown & Co., 2018)

The Secret World by Christopher Andrew (Yale University Press, 2018)

The Spy and the Traitor

How well do you know your Communist defectors? For instance, can you clearly distinguish and differentiate Igor Gouzenko, Anatoly Golitsyn, Michael Goleniewski and Oleg Gordievsky?  (In the spirit of 1066 and All That, the use of protractors is encouraged.) No? Well, here’s a thumbnail sketch to help you prepare for that pub quiz. Gouzenko was the cipher clerk who worked for the GRU in Ottawa, and whose revelations in 1945 led to the unmasking of the atom spies. Golitsyn defected in 1961, and provided information that led to the confirmation of Kim Philby’s treachery. Goleniewski was a Pole, reputedly a triple agent, who helped identify George Blake as a spy within SIS. And Gordievsky was the KGB officer who turned against his employers after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and in 1985 was spirited out of the Soviet Union in a daring escape organised by SIS.

The highly successful journalist Ben Macintyre, author of five gripping books about espionage and sabotage, has now turned his hand to the story of Gordievsky. The tale is not new: Gordievsky wrote a memoir titled Next Stop Execution, which gives almost as much detail about his career with the KGB, as well as the climax of the book, the enterprising escape plan, and how it was executed. (In recommending The Spy and the Traitor as one of his Books of the Year, Peter Frankopan wrote recently in the Spectator: “As with his other books, Macintyre seems not only able to find amazing new material, but to write perfectly paced prose that reads like a thriller.” I agree with the second part of the statement, but not the first.)

Ben Macintyre

Shortly after being posted to London in early 1985, Gordievsky, who had made his desires and loyalties clear when an officer in Copenhagen, and had later provided much valuable information to help Margaret Thatcher negotiate with Gorbachev, was recalled to Moscow, ostensibly for some kind of confirmation process for his recent promotion to rezident. Instead he was immediately interrogated and put under surveillance on suspicion of being a spy. Fortunately for him, Soviet Intelligence was at that time taking a more formal approach to the determination of guilt. Taking advantage of a scheme devised by SIS long before, Gordievsky was able to signal to British Embassy officials that he was in danger, and made his plans for escape. He took a train to Leningrad, and hitched a ride to a place near the Finnish border, where he was picked up and hidden in the boot (trunk) of a car being driven by members of the embassy. He was then smuggled into Finland – an adventure which must surely lead to a movie before long. Macintyre has complemented that account by virtue of his being able to discuss the case freely with Gordievsky’s handlers in SIS (MI6) – a disturbing venture in its own right, given the implications of the Official Secrets Act, and one that raises some troubling questions about the reliability of Macintyre’s judgments.

First of all – that title. The Spy. And the Traitor. Is Gordievsky supposed to be both? Probably not. The traitor is probably meant to indicate Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent who was, somewhat remarkably, given his personality and drinking habits, the Soviet and East European Division’s chief of counter-intelligence, which allowed him to realise that an anonymous high-grade informer was being handled by the British. In order to deliver his high-expense wife the luxuries she demanded, Ames offered his services to the KGB, and was able to provide enough hints to Gordievsky’s background and movements that the Soviets concluded that the pattern of activity and geography cast a strong suspicion that Gordievsky might be the source of the leaks. Yet we should not forget that both men were traitors. I would probably be the last man to propose ‘moral equivalence’ in the actions and motivations of the two (see Misdefending the Realm, p 280, for example), but it is a matter of fact that both men were traitors to the nation they served. This is a vital point, because Gordievsky is still under a death sentence: Putin is reported to be livid with his former colleague’s treachery. An attempt has been made on Gordievsky’s life already, and he has to live in seclusion in darkest Surrey somewhere. (I know Surrey is still ‘leafy’. But do ‘dark’ portions of that county still exist?

What Macintyre does well, he does very well. He has a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, weaves the relevant background material into his ripping yarn very smoothly, and keeps the suspense up extremely capably. Yet his judgment is fallible: he gets a little too close to his subject and the SIS officers who guide him through the story, and lacks the temperament and resolve to stand back coolly from the whole operation. Gordievsky has collaborated with Christopher Andrew on a couple of books since his defection, and, as I noted in last month’s blog, these were not received with the critical acclaim that the author appears to assume. I repeat Macintyre’s assertion: “He gave lectures, listened to music, and wrote books with the historian Christopher Andrew, works of detailed scholarship [sic] that still stand as the most comprehensive accounts of Soviet intelligence to date.” Macintyre echoes Gordievsky’s claim that the spy ELLI was Leo Long, Gordievsky having claimed to have found that detail in the KGB archives. Remarkably, Christopher Andrew used Gordievsky’s statement to voice the same opinion in his authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm, as well as in other books he has written about the KGB, a mistake that has been criticised by historians ever since. (Andrew has declined to appear in forums to discuss this very controversial judgment, but Macintyre should have known about the problem.) It has been rumoured in some quarters that Gordievsky was encouraged by SIS to make the equivalence of ELLI and Long to distract attention from molehunts after more likely candidates  . . .  Again, Macintyre, in his enthusiasm, is reluctant to consider such matters worthy of discussion.

Then there is the case of Michael Foot. Macintyre repeats Gordievsky’s claim that the leader of the Labour Party had been a paid Soviet agent with the cryptonym BOOT (again showing the Soviet bureaucrats’ highly subtle choice of monikers to conceal the identity of their contacts). Macintyre accepts unquestioningly everything that Gordievsky says about Foot, how he was served with raw Soviet propaganda, and how he provided valuable information about Western political strategies from the Korean War onward. In recent weeks, the fortnightly magazine Private Eye has taken the cudgels up against Macintyre, coming to Foot’s defence, showing how his Tribune articles constantly criticised the Soviet Union, and thus showed that he was no friend of the Soviets. I think Private Eye may be jumping too quickly into the fray, too (Michael’s nephew, the late diehard Socialist Paul Foot, is still a much-revered figure at Gnome House). It is possible that Michael Foot conveyed an anti-Soviet stance in Tribune to cover his activities as an agent of influence, but the magazine has showed that Macintyre has tied himself in knots over the chronology of Gordievsky’s awareness of Foot’s activities. However, both Macintyre and Private Eye fail to use the diaries of Anatoly Chernyaev, the Kremlin’s liaison with the Labour Party, which have been translated and are available at the National Security Archive (see https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB192/index.htm ), and would appear to confirm Foot’s foolishness, if not malfeasance. ‘This one will run and run’, in the words of one of Private Eye’s favourite slogans.

And was Macintyre being used by his SIS friends? He carefully explains (in his Acknowledgments) that his work is not an authorised biography, and takes pains to explain that he has had ‘no access to the files of the intelligence service, which remain classified’. Yet he is naïve enough to state that the book was not aided by SIS, having shortly before expressed his huge gratitude to ‘every MI6 officer involved in the case’. If that is not ‘aid’, what is? On page 79, he writes that ‘the correspondence between SUNBEAM and C remains in the MI6 archives, proof of the personal touch on which successful spying depends.” If that is some ‘proof’ to which Macintyre can attest, has he actually inspected it? Even to know that the correspondence exists seems to me an outrageous liberty granted by SIS to the journalist. I do not understand how, given the constraints of the Official Secrets Act, SIS officers were allowed selectively to pass on confidential material to a chosen writer, and get away with it.

But perhaps I do. Macintyre is careful to conceal his contacts under aliases. Gordievsky’s main handler in London is identified as ‘James Spooner’, but Christopher Andrew, in The Secret World (see below) has identified ‘Spooner’ as John Scarlett, who later became chief of SIS. So we must interpret this joint venture between SIS and Macintyre as another in a line of valiant PR exercises by the intelligence services, which started with Alan Moorhead’s The Traitors in 1952. So long as there is a positive story to tell, which shows up the imagination and dedication of the Secret Intelligence Service in a good light, SIS will arrange for a reliable journalist/historian to tell the tale, and break its own rules in so doing. The Spy and the Traitor will be immensely successful, and like other popular retreads of Macintyre’s, will no doubt be enjoyed by millions, but his books should not be regarded as serious history, as they constitute a potpourri of fascinating facts and unreliable information. Moreover, if there is a serious reappraisal of Anglo-Soviet relations to be undertaken, it should not be at the whim of John Scarlett, allowing selective disclosure by the triumvirate of Andrew, Gordievsky and Macintyre. The material on which their statements are based should be made generally available to historians at large.

Traitor Lodger German Spy

Tony Rowland (a nom de plume, as the author wishes to stay anonymous) has chosen, for his crafting of a novel about the mysterious German agent, broadly the same archival documents on ter Braak that I used in my September analysis (see TheMysteryoftheUndetectedRadiosPart3). ‘Based on a true story’, the back cover boasts, but, as readers who have studied my explanation would probably agree, exactly what the true story was is open to a large amount of controversy. Mr. Rowland has overall ingeniously translated the fragments available at the National Archives on Engelbertus Fukken (ter Braak’s real name) into a gripping tale of treachery and murder, but, since the bare threads of the Abwehr agent’s life evading capture have been embellished by the insertion of a completely artificial and unconvincing personage of a Cambridge Professor who is (as far as I can judge) nowhere to be found in the archival records, the story unnecessarily loses its grip with reality.

That is not to say that the fiction is unenjoyable. Rowland has done his homework: he portrays Cambridge in 1940 in very convincing fashion, he is good with dialogue, he represents police procedures with authority, he understands well the political issues at home as well as the sensitive dynamics of the Abwehr, and the subversive mentality of its leaders. He presents the complex issues of wireless telegraphy soundly, and realistically brings in both Bletchley Park and the Cavendish Laboratory as possible targets of ter Braak’s mission. He very sensibly questions the denials by Abwehr officers that they could identify ter Braak, as well as the repeated claims that the arrival of the parachutist Josef Jakobs had nothing to do with ter Braak’s plight. He has done an excellent job of bringing life into the two-dimensional characters who largely people the documents released by MI5. It may be that the person-in-the-street, unfamiliar with what appears in the archives, will find Traitor Lodger German Spy an engrossing spy story and not be concerned about where the author’s imagination has run away with him.

The primary problem, as I see it, is that Rowland presents MI5 as ‘moving heaven and earth’ to find ter Braak, when it is clear from the archives, and from the way Rowland faithfully reflects that part of the story, that the Security Service attempted no such thing. Thus his fiction fails to take on with any resolve the paradox central to ter Braak’s status as a fugitive. How could an escaped German parachutist, at a time when a small densely populated country was on alert for any alien presence, and when enemy agents had been swiftly captured elsewhere, survive for so long, living among apparently unsuspicious civilians and officials? And why would he dabble with the Cambridge netherworld so dangerously, and thus draw attention to himself? Moreover, the background, personality, activities and discoveries of the person that really drives the plot, the Professor (about whom I shall write no more detail, as it would spoil the reader’s enjoyment), were to me so unconvincing as to pull the story out of its realistic framework.

Perhaps my experience in trying to analyse what the ‘true story’ about ter Braak was make me an unsuitable critic of Mr. Rowland’s experiment. To me, the questions naturally surrounding what went on in those hectic months of the winter of 1940-41 are fascinating enough without bringing in in any deus ex machina. In an email exchange, Mr. Rowland told me that he had ‘made no attempt to stick with the recorded facts, or indeed cold logic, where they don’t fit with the plot.’ That struck me as an odd argument to make: if the plot drove everything, why attempt to promote the book as being based on a true story, while emphasizing the process of researching the story in ‘the files of the National Archives at Kew, the Cambridge Archives . . .’?  (Rowland appears to have overlooked the very considerable facts about ter Braak uncovered in the articles in After the Battle magazine.) He does credit, however, two writers with a significant interest in the story, a Dutch writer Jan-Willem van den Braak, and Giselle Jakobs, the granddaughter of Josef Jakobs (who was executed later in 1941) with assisting him with the results of his research. I have not read the contributions of either (apart from blogs posted on the latter’s website), but why would the author go out of his way to incorporate information from them, only to dismiss certain facts as inconvenient for his plot?

In an imagined world of fiction, the plot should derive from the convincing but probably flawed characteristics of the participants, and not be a mechanism of its own that relies on artificiality and unexplainable events. Rowland has the skills to have made this a more convincing tale. I am very supportive of efforts to bring the strange history of ter Braak into the public eye, but the bare facts as revealed by the archives provide enough opportunity for weaving an engrossing story about a brave but misguided man during a fascinating winter in history, without the introduction of unconvincing melodrama.

Transcription

I do not read much fiction these days, but this title caught my eye. Kate Atkinson was not a name I knew, but her latest work was suddenly being reviewed everywhere, she was being interviewed by the New York Times, and Transcription quickly made its way into the NYT best-seller list. More relevantly, it was a novel about a period that I know fairly well – the spring and summer of 1940 when Britain came under a ‘Fifth Column’ scare. So I thought I should acquire the book, and see what was going on.

The story concerns a young lady, an orphan, who is recruited by MI5 to assist in a surveillance operation against Fascist sympathisers. After working as a transcriber of the recorded conversations that the potential traitors engage in, innocently believing they are having an exchange with a Gestapo officer under cover in Dolphin Square, Juliet Armstrong is asked to take part in a more aggressive project to entrap one of the ladies who is facilitating the illicit passing of information from the American Embassy. This leads to further complications, both romantic and political – including a murder carried out and concealed by MI5 – and an estrangement from the MI5 agent who was responsible for carrying out the deception. After the war, she is called on again to provide a safe house for a fleeing scientist from behind the Iron Curtain, and things go wrong, which lead to her being persecuted. The narrative starts with her death when hit by a car in London in 1981, and flashes back to 1940 and 1950, when she was working for the BBC.

My first, highly distracting, impression was that Ms. Atkinson overloaded her reach for historical authenticity by including too many reasonably well-known historical figures masquerading under invented names. Thus Peregrine Gibbons, the handler of agents who works from his residence in Dolphin Square, is incontrovertibly the nature-lover of ambiguous sexuality, Maxwell Knight, who, like Juliet, moves over to the BBC to work after the war. Godfrey Toby, who mysteriously ‘cuts’ Juliet after the war, is Eric Roberts, working for Knight, who pretended to be a representative of the Gestapo in encouraging the Fascist ladies. Oliver Alleyne, who is Gibbons’ boss, and who also recruits Juliet for special tasks, is presumably Guy Liddell: the name Alleyne is perhaps a deliberate echo of John Le Carré’s Percy Alleline. Miles Merton, ‘the intellectual communist’, must be based on Anthony Blunt. I glimpsed Olga Gray, and saw traces of Joan Miller (author of One Girl’s War) in Juliet. The American spy Chester Vanderkamp is indubitably the author’s name for Tyler Kent, and his partner in crime Mrs. Scaife is Anna Wolkoff of the Russian Tea Room. The introduction of a dog named Cyril who is withheld from his owner, a double-agent, clearly comes from the case-history of Anna Sergueiew. Etc. etc.

But why all the distortions? The author gets dates wrong, for instance, misrepresenting Knight’s career. She greatly overstates the function of the perceived Nazi sympathisers, a set of chattering ladies, as a ‘Fifth Column’, when it bore none of the characteristics of a force ready to take up arms in the event of an invasion. Even though Maxwell Knight’s official report on the operation (written much later) called it that, the Fifth Column menace did not rear its head until the Low Countries and France succumbed to Nazi invasion, and then blew over in a couple of months. Victor Rothschild and Anthony Blunt did not join MI5 until May of 1940. Roger Hollis was not yet a prominent officer of MI5. Ms. Atkinson anticipates the execution of German spies by about a year. The Sergueiew incident did not occur until 1943. Some of this may be deliberate – an attempt to show that the experts in counter-espionage were as deceived as anybody as to what was going on. As another MI5 officer (Hartley, who also wants to use Juliet as ‘his girl’ on a project) says: “Storm in a teacup, all that stuff about the fifth column. Bunch of frustrated housewifes, most of them. Gibbons was obsessed with them. Anyway, you were looking at the wrong people – you should have been looking at the communists, they were always the real threat.”

Kate Atkinson

So what we find here is more playing fast-and-loose with historical figures. And then I found that the author is quite candid about such games. In her ‘Author’s Note’, she admits that she ‘got a lot of it wrong, on purpose’, and ‘invented what she felt like’. Her sources show all the familiar titles (although she appears not to have used Henry Hemming’s recent biography of Maxwell Knight), and she has plucked from these the anecdotes and characters that suited her. But why? What she ends up with is neither authentic documentary nor imaginative fiction. She describes the process as ‘a wrenching apart of history followed by an imaginative reconstruction.’ No, madam: this is no Wolf Hall. And the plot is no stellar composition to compensate: the character of Juliet (who is mildly interesting to begin with, although this reviewer, appropriately sensitised by the #MeToo movement, found her urgent desires to be seduced by one or more of her mentors a trifle unsavoury) dissolves into a blur. Her involvement in a murder, and MI5’s disposal of the body, is simply melodramatic. Juliet never shows the aptitude or inclination to be a spy, and simply becomes a creature of apparently unexplained events. If there were subtle hints of her eventual political convictions to be found in earlier scenes, they certainly escaped me. I had lost interest in her before the twist in her career became clear.

Is there a deeper message here? Does ‘Transcription’ have something to do with ‘Deception’ or ‘Distortion’? Are the struggles and delusions of the Security Service an allegory of some post-imperial hangover? Does the ‘transcription’ carry a genetic metaphor, reflecting some process of DNA copying?  “Search me, guv!”, as Harold Pinter responded when an enthusiastic devotee asked him for confirmation as to what one of his plays meant. One critic of this ‘superb story of wartime espionage’ (Gerry Kimber, in the Times Literary Supplement) declared that ‘readers will eventually learn that nothing they encounter here can be taken at face value: in this novel the dividing line between truth and lies is only smoke and mirrors.’ But thriving on smoke and mirrors can lead to intellectual sloppiness, and allow the writer to get away with all manner of carelessness. This novel has many moments of humour, and insights into the world of 1940 Britain and 1950 BBC that I found convincing and familiar, even, but Juliet’s arch asides became tiresome after a while, and I was not convinced by the actions and motivations of anybody.

As readers of my critiques will now have concluded, I am not a fan of ‘novels’ which attempt to compensate for their lack of creativity in credible plot and characterisation by drawing on historical sources in a highly selective manner. And I do not think I am alone, as the recent controversy over the distortion of facts by Heather Morris in her best-selling The Tattooist of Auschwitz shows. The author’s editor at Harper Collins was quoted as saying: “It’s a novel so it didn’t need to be fact-checked, though a novel needs to have verisimilitude.” But then it should not emphasise the ‘true story’ aspect if it plays around with the facts, as the alert reader will question everything else. I happened to turn next for my bedtime reading to an often neglected book by John le Carré that truly covers the ‘smoke and mirrors’ theme: The Looking-Glass War (1964). In his Foreword, le Carré writes: “None of the characters, clubs, institutions nor intelligence organisations I have described here or elsewhere exists, or has existed to my knowledge in real life.”  That’s more like it, guv! (Though he had to say that, as they obviously did. But that’s a story for another day.)

The Secret World

For any collector of books on intelligence, Christopher Andrew’s latest work must be a necessary addition, probably to join other serious companions on the shelf of authorised histories. Yet, if such bibliophiles are like me, there will no spare space on any of their shelves, and it will have to take its place on one of the piles on the bridge-table, or heaped on the grand piano, unless I consider reclaiming shelf-space from some valuable but less solemn volumes that will be relegated to the annex. On reflection, I do not think the last option is likely. For all its 760 pages of Text, 58 pages of Sources, and 55 pages of Notes, I doubt whether I shall be referring to The Secret World often. Weighing in at three-and-a-half-pounds, however, it will undoubtedly bust many blocks. (And maybe block a few busts on top of the piano.)

So what is it about? Its subtitle runs ‘A History of Intelligence’, but the flyleaf claims that it is ‘the first global history of espionage ever written’, which is not the same thing at all. Espionage, counter-espionage, information-gathering, propaganda, deception: all those I might include under ‘Intelligence’, but I would certainly not consider state-arranged murder of its own citizens, or covert assassinations of foreign politicians, as part of that domain. Yet, in his Introduction, Andrew provocatively claims that they are. Thus, while it may be illuminating to make comparisons between the Spanish Inquisition and Stalin’s Great Terror of 1938, I question whether the classification of mass murder of innocent persons as a matter of ‘intelligence’ reflects a solid humanitarian judgment. Simply because the institution that carried out the executions was also responsible for spying on the populace, that fact does not contribute valuably to the study of the suitable deployment of ‘intelligence’ in domestic or foreign affairs. Andrew reinforces this unhappy theme by relating, in the concluding chapter, the worldwide assassination exploits of the Israeli intelligence organisation, Mossad, and controversially appears to approve such aggression as a winning strategy of ‘the most recent of the world’s most successful intelligence agencies’ in protecting the country. While ‘intelligence’ must be largely secret, however, not all that is secret counts as intelligence. These are shifting and controversial territories to be working in, and some moral compass is required.

Andrew’s dominant message is that a professional unawareness of how intelligence has been successfully (and unsuccessfully) deployed leads to repeated mistakes. Yet, as he explains in his Introduction, the excessive secrecy that attends to its role leads to delayed recognition of such awareness and to an uninformed populace. Records are not released, and histories are written with incomplete information or concealed knowledge (e.g. by such leading lights as A. J. P. Taylor and Winston Churchill respectively), with the result that whole generations are brought up on inadequate or distorted accounts of what primarily influenced outcomes. As he says, the public was protected from knowing about Ultra and the Double-Cross system decades after the events. But he does not analyse (as an outsider) or explain (as an insider) why secrets are maintained for so long. The Double-Cross system was never going to be exploited successfully against the Soviet adversary, no matter that some had delusions that it could be. Germany was never going to gain a revanchist advantage from learning how its Enigma messages had been decrypted, and the science of cryptology moved on. The VENONA secret was maintained for fifty years, but the Soviets knew about it from their spies anyway, and had fixed any procedural problems that the project would have revealed. (Moscow frequently knew much more than Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee about what was really going on in the UK’s Secret World, a point that Andrew does not explore in depth.)

At the end of the book, Andrew returns to this important question of secrecy, dedicating a few pages to Wikileaks, making the claim that not much damage was in fact performed through this breach, and that government secrets have been betrayed for centuries. But, in that case, why has the US Government granted the highest-level security clearance to one-and-a-half million employees and consultants? How could it possibly monitor and maintain a system that pretended that it could vet and trust so many persons, and that the exposure of the secrets that had been entrusted to them would cause ‘exceptionally grave damage’? And why do MI5 and SIS display such a possessive and secret attitude to files that can have no possible bearing on today’s security challenges, and refuse to release folders that have by far outlived their shelf-life? This is the obverse of Andrew’s assertion, which he does not inspect at all. (Yet it was one that came through very clearly in his 1984 collaborative work with David Dilks, The Missing Dimension.)

Sir Christopher Andrew

The bulk of the book consists of a walk through intelligence history over the millennia, but it lacks much of a roadmap. One looks, therefore, to the final chapter for perhaps a thematic summing-up. This chapter is not titled ‘Conclusions’, however, but ‘Conclusion: Twenty-First Century Intelligence in Long-Term Perspective’. Rather than neatly integrating the lessons from the past, the section disappointingly rambles all over the place, introduces much new material, and ends with the rather plodding assertion: “The more that is discovered about the long-term history of intelligence, the more difficult it will be for both policymakers and practitioners to ignore past experiences”, as if the publication of this book will suddenly make ministers, intelligence chiefs, and watchdogs around the world all suddenly perk up when Andrew had presumably not been able to convince them beforehand of the errors of their ways. Well, maybe. Old habits die hard. And if the ‘Yoda’ (see FourBooksonEspionage) of intelligence studies cannot improve matters, who will be able to? But that is what you are paying for.

To reach that conclusion, the reader will have waded through a rich cavalcade of histories of espionage and deceit through the ages. The early parts had a little too much religion and mythology for my liking, much of the story having an anecdotal and unreliable aspect that may not bear much rigorous examination. (His narrative also served to remind me how the interminable feuds between Catholics and Protestants disproportionately influenced state policies, and how calamitous such futile religious commitments were for the peace of Europe.) Thereafter, the reader can pick up some of the lessons that recur over the centuries: the analogies between Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, for instance; the fact that despots want to be told what they have already preconceived (the difficulty of telling ‘Truth-to-Power’), disdaining intermediary intelligence-analysing bodies; and the requirement for governments to avoid proving an allegation against a foreign power by disclosing the clandestine channel through which they acquired it. (Though the existence of those hidden cameras in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Ankara had to be revealed for the greater good.)

But it would have been useful for Andrew to have identified up-front some themes that were important to the use of intelligence in strategy, and relate them to the epochs he studies. For example, how relevant today are lessons from the Second Punic War as opposed to those from WWII? What technological developments in the past fifty years have caused strategic assessment to change? In the final chapter he tries to recapitulate, by making some highly important points about the necessity for imagination when assessing the motivations and practices of the foe: these indeed point to some enduring patterns. Thus he shows how important open-ended questions for agents assessing German weapons programmes in WWII were, a lesson forgotten by the CIA sixty years later when it sought intelligence on Iraq. And he reminds us that both Stalin’s and Hitler’s obsessions, at different times of the war (Stalin’s determination to assassinate Trotsky, Hitler’s pursuit of the Final Solution) were completely misread by intelligence analysts in the West. Yet only in the last sentence of the penultimate chapter does he introduce his theory of Historical Attention-Span Deficit Disorder (HASDD), which he had briefly introduced in his Introduction. Why so late? Moreover, this is a global study: is misuse of intelligence cancelled out if it is perpetrated by adversaries, such as the West on the one side and Russia or China on the other? It is as if he (rightly) feels uncomfortable about giving advice to regimes for whose goals he does not bear any sympathy, but this matter is never explored.

By dint of this rather strange structure, Andrew does not really perform justice to the richness of lessons to be learned. Would it not have been educational, for instance, to make some comparisons between surveillance and containment activities undertaken by totalitarian regimes to further their control over perceived enemies, and those pursued in constitutional democracies? How should policies differ in peace and war, and how should they change in that time when the former drifts into the latter? What lessons should we take from the successes of state-sponsored assassination – that it works for some democracies, but not others, and is not justifiable when committed by more authoritarian states (Israel, yes, but not Russia or North Korea, perhaps)? It would have been enlightening if he had offered an analysis of how many of Israel’s 2700 targeted killings were a) strategically beneficial, and b) justifiable. Such passages really shocked this reader, who looked for more context and analysis.

It would also have been useful for him to have explored the question of political organisation of intelligence. For example, should leaders’ recognition of the strategic value of intelligence be translated into close contact with intelligence heads, or should it concentrate instead on the building of the appropriate processes and structures, and the recruitment of the right people (not potential traitors!), including enough individuals with appropriate language skills, and giving them training and a proper budget?  (The former could indicate the latter has been ignored, of course. Executive politicians come and go: institutions endure.) He could have inspected successful patterns for developing mechanisms for sharing intelligence across different groups of the armed forces, and encouraging objective assessment. He could have explored cases where intelligence personnel showed imagination in not assuming that the enemy worked and thought as themselves. Britain, in the Chamberlain era, ignored nearly all these rules, and it took Churchill to make amends, such as giving the Joint Intelligence Centre some real teeth and focus, but policy towards the Soviet Union in World War II was marred by the Foreign Office’s belief that, if handled nicely, Stalin would behave like a typical English gentleman, rather than the Georgian gangster he always was. Readers will learn much more about such matters from, say, Ralph Bennett’s Behind the Battle (a work not appearing in Andrew’s Bibliography, but one which he could profitably have read) than they will from The Secret World.

Andrew’s judgments are largely unsurprising and sometimes questionable, I think, and he steps back from exploring really important topical matters, such as the use of modern technology (e.g. encryption, social media) in both subversion and counter-subversion. Neither Apple nor Facebook appears in the Index. He offers a few pages on Islamic fundamentalism, but does not discuss the critical subject of taqiyya, Islamic propaganda with a devious religious spin, or recommend how it should be countered. He represents 9/11 as a failure to combine the preparation for a threat originating on foreign soil with delivery inside the nation’s boundaries, when the plotters were in fact able to pass undetected because of woeful lack of communication and collaboration by the country’s intelligence agencies. He comes up with a knee-jerk assessment of McCarthyism that contains all the fashionably correct codewords: “The outrageous exaggerations and inventions of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s self-serving anti-Communist witch-hunt in the early 1950s made liberal opinion skeptical for the remainder of the Cold War of the reality of the Soviet intelligence offensive”, as if McCarthy had been responsible for the concealment of communists undertaken by such as the State Department. If there was a ‘reality of the Soviet intelligence offensive’, how should it have been revealed when it had already succeeded in its infiltration? Why was ‘liberal opinion’ so appeasingly indulged? How would experience have helped? Andrew ventures no opinion. He spends an enormous amount of print on Pearl Harbor, but barely scrapes the surface of the Soviet Union’s Red Orchestra and spy network in World War II, and how it affected critical negotiations between the Big Three towards the end of the conflict.

What it boils down to is that repeated patterns of activity are not really that interesting, while integrating growing knowledge of intelligence into historiography is endlessly so. That is why rewriting WWII history in the light of revealed secrets about Ultra, for example, is an ongoing task: even histories written in the 1990s were not able to take advantage of the raw decrypts that have now been released to the National Archives. He mentions this in his Introduction, but does not follow through. Instead, in order to provide some linkage with the present, Andrew has chosen to develop some leitmotifs that are entertaining, though not always revelatory. It is worth quoting a few:

“Scot was the first, and so far the only, British intelligence chief executed for treason.” (p 231)

“Before he [James II] could escape, however, he was caught by fishermen looking for fleeing Catholic priests, and suffered the humiliation of becoming the only British monarch ever to be strip-searched.” (P 250)

“Wallis was the first, and so far the only, British codebreaker to receive an award from a foreign ruler.” (P 253)

“Among the most reluctant witnesses to give evidence in the Lords against Atterbury was Edward Willes, the only codebreaker ever to appear before Parliament.” (p 274)

“His [Swift’s] Gulliver’s Travels contains the first (and so far the only) satire of codebreaking by a major British writer.” (p 275)

“So far as is known, following the failure of the Cadoudal conspiracy [1804], no British government or government agency approved another plot to assassinate a foreign leader until the Second World War.” (P 338)

“The identity of ‘Michel’ was discovered from the handwriting and he became probably the only Russian spy ever to be sent to the guillotine.” (P 355)

“After the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin placed all the volumes in his personal archive and brooded over them for many years, making extensive annotations and occasional doodles. So far as is known, no other world leader has ever spent so much time brooding over the intelligence record of his past life.” (P 441)

“Apis and three fellow officers were shot by firing squad. He thus became the first intelligence chief [of Serbia] of the twentieth century to be executed.” (P 448)

“Thanks to the failure of the Cheka to provide security, Lenin became the first, and so far the only, head of government to be the victim of a carjack.” (P 574)

“He [Kalugin] became the first (and possibly the last) KGB officer to serve on the Columbia University Student Council.” (P 685)

Does this pattern represent a nervous tic, or does it show innovative scholarship? I leave the reader to decide. But it must be passages like this that prompted Ben Macintyre to assert, in an interview in the New York Times Book Review, that The Secret World is ‘easy to dip into’ and ‘surprisingly funny’. I did not laugh much – but then I was not dipping.

While this critic was sometimes overwhelmed by the panorama of historical figures, many of whom I had not encountered before, I must credit the tremendous scholarship that has gone into this publication. Did Andrew really compose it all himself? Can any single scholar have read all those works listed? He thanks dozens of academics in his Acknowledgements, many of whom ‘notably extended my grasp of intelligence by allowing me to supervise their PhD theses’. Yet those theses are not listed separately, and only four such writers (Gioe, Gustafson, Larsen and Lokhova, whose contribution is actually an MPhil dissertation) have their theses listed in the Bibliography. On the other hand I did notice references to Cambridge University theses by authors whose names do not appear in the Acknowledgments. Were projects delegated to different scholars? I ask simply because I do not know how the process worked, although I have read that Andrew, who said that his writing of Defend the Realm was for him a part-time occupation, did on that project have junior academics performing primary research for him in the MI5 archives.

Irrespective of how the project functioned, or whether everyone has received the credit due to them, any seams are overall well concealed, and Andrew’s copy-editor has performed a solid job in providing stylistic consistency. Some deep textual analysis might show multiple authors at work: I spotted ‘different to’ on page 346, and ‘different from’ on page 490, which would be an unusual syntactic habit by an established academic with a competency for polished prose. Occasionally, errors occur: repeated textual descriptions and references (even in the same chapter) come up quite regularly, suggesting a text that has undergone homogenization without complete cross-checking.  An individual map appears twice. ‘Bagration’ (from the Index) appears as ‘Bagratian’ (in the text). Rear-Admiral Macintire appears as ‘Macintyre’ in the same line (p 633). Colonel House appears sometimes as ‘Colonel’ House, as if it were a nickname. (The author invites readers to contact him with notices of errors, but does not indicate how.)

As for sources, Andrew quotes his own works a little too much for my liking, and I found it bizarre that he, as the authorised historian of MI5, would cite Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross as a source. He stresses the importance of the American journalists Woodward and Bernstein, but fails to mention anything that Chapman Pincher wrote, or the contribution that Pincher made to drawing attention to murky secrets. On the other hand, Andrew is a bit too eager to mention his acolyte Svetlana Lokhova (see FourBooksonEspionage), who even gains credit for her entrepreneurship: “The investigation of the Kremlin plot, whose voluminous files have recently been discovered by Svetlana Lokhova, revealed a security shambles on an even larger scale.” It was not as if Ms. Lokhova had been tramping intrepidly through the Amazon jungle in search of a lost tribe: she would not have been able to ‘discover’ those voluminous files without some high-up permission and guidance. Yet Andrew has no room for Lokhova’s profile of Shumovsky, The Spy Who Changed History, which essentially glorified the Soviet Union’s purloining of American scientific secrets. Is Andrew suggesting that the lessons of HASDD be applied consistently by potential global adversaries? It is all rather uneven, and reflects very indeterminate principles.

In conclusion, I should have liked Andrew to explore this notion of HASDD in more detail, and how it relates to the defence of the constitutional democracies. After all, we should assume that his lessons are for the ‘good guys’ (the liberal democracies) rather than for the ‘bad guys’ (authoritarian or totalitarian states, or transnational terrorist organisations). Andrew does not make this explicit: he describes China’s efforts to erase any memories of Tiananmen Square, but does not offer us an opinion of whether this initiative to improve state security is commendable, or to be deplored. (Is a stable but authoritarian and expansive China better for the West than a China that starts to fragment or crumble?) Nor does he encompass the possibility, as we are frequently told these days, that the democracies may well be at risk more from the imitation of illiberal democracies, or from the sway of undemocratic superstates, than they are from ideological would-be territorial invaders, such as the Nazis and the Communists. That former warning is, presumably, the moral message he is leaving with us, rather than a sermon on how an inattention to historical precedent sometimes inhibits China’s new imperialism, or Iran’s regional ambitions.

Does this HASDD syndrome reflect a problem of structure, personnel, process, or skills? Is it the fault of the intelligence services, the politicians, (in Britain) the Joint Intelligence Committee, or some other agency? Is this a uniquely British/American condition? And, if he considers that the lore of successful spycraft is not properly understood and applied, why is he surprised, given that the security services (in the UK) were not admitted to exist until the 1990s, that the authorised history of SIS stops in 1949, that both MI5 and SIS have engaged in cover-ups to conceal their mistakes, and that they have selectively broken the Official Secrets Act by allowing journalists access to secret files in order to write publications that would act as public relations exercises? After all, the authorised histories avoid the really contentious issues that might provide learning examples for HASDD. It is no wonder that there exists a substantial amount of suspicion about the effectiveness of both institutions.

Coming closer to home (well, my spiritual home, I suppose, but I suspect I have more readers in the UK than in the USA), what needs to be done to improve British intelligence? In response to Andrew’s examples from more recent times, were the close links between Sir Richard Dearlove (head of SIS) and Anthony Blair that the author highlighted a sign of greater ministerial awareness, or of dangerous cronyism? Clement Attlee, as he points out, had frequent meetings with Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, but what Andrew does not say is that it did not help Attlee, since Sillitoe lied to his PM over the Fuchs case, in order to save the Service. How actively should the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee monitor MI5? Shouldn’t there be a vigorous filter between intelligence collection and executive action – the JIC? Andrew supports the establishment of centres for study into intelligence and security matters, but are those who teach there going to be unrestrained by pledges of secrecy? Would research carried on under their auspices address the HASDD problem? And does each faculty then become part of that inescapable irritatingly-named entity ‘the intelligence community’? Is it good or bad that members of this group might have different views on intelligence matters? If it is indeed a ‘community’, should MI5 and SIS be combined, since the Empire no longer exists, and many threats to security do not recognize national boundaries?  Do retired heads of MI5 and SIS, voicing their opinions on national security on public platforms, help or hinder the task of guiding policy? These are some of the questions that it would have been useful for Andrew to address.

And, as a final thought – perhaps intelligence is sometimes overrated. In life we learn that the predatory behavior of a bully is best resisted as early as possible, as the malefactor will otherwise assume that his aggression works for him, and will repeat it. At the time of Hitler’s militarization of the Rhineland in 1936, and Stalin’s claims for possession of the Baltic States in 1941, both bullies were relatively weak, and yet they were not challenged. Is it the same with President Xi, and his demands on Taiwan, and the construction of artificial islands in the China Sea? No furtive gathering of information was necessary to divine what was happening in either of the two historical instances, yet the fear of ‘provocation’ overrode the political conviction that what deters bullies best is a quick biff on the nose – or, at least, its diplomatic equivalent. And autocrats are more transparent in that they don’t have to avoid decisions that might lose them the next election (unlike Stanley Baldwin). We can perhaps get too caught up in the fog of intelligence, and forget some simple psychological lessons.

I suppose part of the problem in taking on a task of this magnitude is the truth that Andrew has become part of the official intelligence apparatus. That leads to a paradox – a Morton’s Fork. If Andrew is indeed that firmly embedded, it must be impossible for him to analyse objectively the infrastructure to which he belongs. Yet, if he were an outsider, he would not be privy to much of the knowledge of how the apparatus works, because it is so secret, although sometimes unnecessarily so. An insider knows too much, an outsider too little. Moreover, it is difficult to write a volume that serves as both objective history as well as a tutorial on intelligence and spycraft. The Secret World is thus a compromise: a monumental and educational undertaking of great academic quality, testimony to some impressive research, but lacking a clear charter, and failing to explore ruthlessly enough the patterns of failure and success in governments’ deployment of intelligence. There is a book to be written about that latter topic, but Andrew’s is not it.

(This month’s new Commonplace entries can be found here.)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Literature/Academia, Personal, Politics

Confessions of a Conspiracy Theorist

And an update on ter Braak . . .

Some Famous Conspiracy Theorists (Nos 17-20 in a series of 50)

Titus Oates

Maximilien Robespierre

Joseph Stalin

Tony Percy

A Lesson from Salisbury

As most readers familiar with the Skryalin affair will know, recently two GRU officers masquerading as tourists with an enthusiasm for Early English architecture were shown, through the means of a surveillance camera, sauntering through Salisbury. Soon after those pictures were published, I was interested to read the following statement in the New York Times: “Matthew Dean, the head of Salisbury’s City Council and owner of a local pub, the Duke of York, said he hoped it would put to rest conspiracy theories circulating about the crime.” The implied hope behind Mr. Dean’s statement was that a more convincing theory, one backed up by more solid evidence, would oust alternative explanations that lacked any real factual basis, and that tended to exploit hidden fears and motivations.

I do not know to which other theories Mr. Dean was referring (poison planted by British intelligence? release of a germ from Porton Down by a disgruntled employee?), but the obvious implication was that all ‘conspiracy theories’ are inherently false and deceptive. ‘Conspiracy theory’ is a pejorative term. Yet MI5, in trying to work out what had happened, and conjecturing that the attack was probably engineered by some part of Russian ‘intelligence’, would have had to create some kind of theory about how Novichok found its way to the back-streets of Salisbury. Whether the action of a single deranged agent (which in truth by definition could not be a conspiracy), or a deed plotted deeply in the conference-rooms of the Lubianka, any hypothesis would presumably come under the category of ‘conspiracy theory’. Yet the strong evidence that the perpetrators had been identified would in fact make this particular ‘conspiracy theory’ a winner over inferior versions. With the GRU now nailed, the conspiracy is almost certainly proven: the ‘theoretical’ aspect of it is retired. What happened next, however, was that the established facts became a conspiracy theory of their own: Marcello Foa, the new chairman of Italy’s state broadcaster RAI, was reported in the New York Times on September 28 as saying that he doubted the evidence that Moscow’s operatives poisoned Skryalin, as it was ‘too obvious’.

You can read an informative article about conspiracy theories at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory. Such theories not based on any tangible evidence are mostly the dreamchildren of the ambitious but frustrated, the third-rate who cannot gain the influence or power they think they deserve, and thus have to attribute their failure to some malign cabal. In authoritarian regimes many despots, who are classical conspiracy theorists, are paranoiac about challenges to their power, as they realise their grip on it is artificial and resented.  In liberal democracies, a mistrust of the ‘authorities’ – often governmental institutions who have forgotten their sense of accountability to the public – and their apparent determination to protect institutions or persons, frequently leads to scepticism about the official line, and gullible members of the citizenry may become susceptible to dubious theories enthusiastically promoted. Fantasy drives facts, and an emotional appeal is made to baser instincts than reason. The Internet has reinforced the presence of such theories, as it is neutral, undiluted and universal.

Conspiracy and the Historians

This is especially true in the domain of intelligence and counter-intelligence, since the appeal to ‘national security’ may be overused in the process of concealing the facts. The curious public might justifiably wonder why certain information is withheld. Yet, if there is an obvious mismatch between the evidence and the outcome, the discretion will provide a void that activists will cheerfully fill. This was the point I made in my August blog, where I thought it naive of Christopher-Davenport Hines to attack the media for investigating obvious loopholes in the official stories of dubious goings-on when the intelligence services had shown such an obvious disdain for coming clean and admitting their mistakes in their accounts to the public. Thus the conspiracies entered by officers in government services, whereby they agree to keep uncomfortable facts hidden from the public, in fact exert an influence of provoking further conspiracy theories.

This dynamic can lead to tensions between the authorities and those serious analysts who, while not wanting to put the nation’s security at risk, believe a more open approach to disclosure of information is desirable. In his Introduction to Seven Spies who Changed the World (1991), Nigel West wrote: “Whilst there are plenty of conspiracy theorists perhaps a little too willing to advocate global schemes of labyrinthine complexity, often constructed on foundations of dubious evidence, there is plenty of room in our culture for due recognition to be given to what might be termed ‘the secret world’.” (That, incidentally, is the title of Sir Christopher Andrew’s recent history of intelligence.) West’s not very precisely articulated point (who was supposed to be granting the ‘due recognition’ that was not happening?) was presumably that while the public should make allowances that some degree of secrecy is needed to protect policies, practices and personnel from public scrutiny, the curious media should be encouraged to speculate. He preceded the above remarks by pointing out a quantum of double standards in the approach to historiography, some sentences that I believe are worth quoting in full.

Nigel West

“Security considerations are entirely valid as motives for omitting certain aspects of history from publication, but the historians who have either submitted to censorship or imposed it upon themselves can hardly blame the public for seeking to learn more about episodes and incidents that have previously been consigned, for the sake of discretion, to locked vaults. However, for them to deride those historiographers who overcome the obstacles and gain access to an ‘airport-bookstall school of history’ betrays an intellectual arrogance of breathtaking proportions.” (This is akin to the Davenport-Hines defence of ‘experts’, I believe.) He clearly moves part of the blame to those historians who have performed some sort of compromise with ‘the secret world’. But to whom could West have been referring?

He wrote this in 1991, and somewhat bizarrely, given the timing, also observed that Professors Hinsley and Howard ‘have been commissioned by the government to write official accounts of the parts played by British intelligence services during World War II’. (The first volume had appeared in 1979, and the last in 1990.) Perhaps West had not yet studied them:  his criticisms seem to have been directed elsewhere. As the author of a history of MI5 (1981) that presumably fell into that ‘airport-bookstall’ school, a serious, very useful, but inevitably flawed book, West was of course not aware that Professor Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 would be appearing at the end of the following decade. Yet he still had a barb for Andrew, who may have fallen into that set ‘who have either submitted to censorship or imposed it upon themselves’. In a Note on this section of his Introduction he singles out Professors Cameron Watt and Andrew as the culprits who have unjustly scorned the popular historiographers, and gets his own back by panning Andrew’s recent Inside the KGB (1990): “The latter [Andrew] himself fell foul of his academic colleagues when he published Inside the KGB with Oleg Gordievsky without supporting documentation. It was noted that the book contained virtually no new research and depended heavily on either secondary sources or a single source without verification.” Touché! I am sure West was referring to the review by Tennant Bagley, former Deputy Chief of the CIA’s Soviet Division, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Andrew had ‘taken shortcuts in the historian’s disciplines that diminish the book’s authority’. Further: “He often leans on a single source, while overlooking more reliable ones, and by trusting earlier writers who got their information second-hand, so he has perpetuated mistakes that any knowledgeable reader will spot.” ‘Officially Unreliable’, in other words.

Sir Christopher Andrew

But this feud between the confidants on the inside and the sceptics on the outside continues. Gordievsky is very much in the news again now, because of Ben Macintyre’s controversial new biography of the KGB defector, The Spy and the Traitor, to which I shall return in a future blog. On page 319 of this work Macintyre writes, seemingly oblivious to the criticisms addressed to Andrew and Gordievsky: “He [Gordievsky] gave lectures, listened to music, and wrote books with the historian Christopher Andrew, works of detailed scholarship [sic] that still stand as the most comprehensive accounts of Soviet intelligence to date.” Macintyre appears a little too trusting of what Gordievsky and the SIS insiders who minded him chose to tell the author. Is this simply a Mutual Admiration Society, the gathering around the ‘Yoda’ of intelligence history (see my August blog), in other words a relatively benign form of conspiracy, or is it something more dangerous? The point is that the balance of secrecy has been weighted too far on the side of government bodies, and certain historians, by colluding with them, exacerbate the problem.

Ben Macintyre

I believe that what West hints at concerning self-censorship is a very serious matter. For example, if a historian signs the Official Secrets Act, in my opinion he or she is compromised as a serious analyst. If an authority essentially imposes silence on certain topics as the cost of gaining secret insider information, that academic is in practice prohibited from writing or teaching authoritatively about any subject, as he or she may have to ignore evidence that could be critical to the study of that topic.  (I suspect that such a person is also barred from admitting that he or she has even signed the Act.) I do not understand why any academic would consent to such a restriction, except out of gratitude that one is considered important enough to be confided in secrets that the broader world does not know about, or as a necessary preliminary in a consulting assignment. The result of such flattery is that the academic can presumably be trusted by the government authority to put a vague positive spin on the activities of the contracting department, but the inevitable outcome is that he or she becomes part of a ‘conspiracy of silence’.

And mysteries persist. Thus, when the facts appear not to match the official story, or ‘insiders’ leak accounts that contradict it, the serious objective historian, without special access to official sources (whom one should not trust, anyway), and sharing the open archives with everyone else, has to develop his or her hypotheses in an attempt to explain why the authorities would not want the details of a particular event or exploit not to become public. And I believe a serious academic fist can be made of such research without the author’s becoming a member of the ‘airport-bookstall’ school. (Oh, if only Misdefending the Realm appeared alongside Ben Macintyre’s oeuvre on airport bookstalls!)  It simply requires a solid methodology, hard work, and a strong regard for chronology – laced with a careful amount of imagination.  Of necessity, the theories that emanate from such work will involve the actions of multiple persons – hence a ‘conspiracy’.

My Experience

I have very direct experience of this process myself. When writing my thesis on communist subversion in WWII, one episode constantly niggled at me: Why would the Foreign Office have condoned a visit by Guy Burgess and Isaiah Berlin to Moscow at a time (July 1940) when the Soviet Union was helping Nazi Germany in the war effort? I developed a hypothesis that it must have been planned as some kind of back-channel from Churchill’s administration to Stalin, but could not pinpoint why. I even ran the idea up the tentative flagpole in my original History Today article on The Undercover Egghead (see https://www.historytoday.com/antony-percy/isaiah-berlin-undercover-egghead ), but gained no shred of feedback to either encourage or squelch the notion. Given the conspiracy of silence that obnubilated Burgess and all those who were hoodwinked by him, it was very difficult to find any documentary evidence to support my idea.

It turned out that the argument of my thesis rested very heavily on this event: it was the pivot. However, as I developed the case, from a very detailed study of the chronology, and of the actions of dozens of parties at the time, it seemed to me that Churchill, in June and July 1940, at a very critical time of the war, was taking on a very cagey tactic in trying to play Hitler off Stalin while not encouraging the two dictators to gang up on the British Empire. Britain was that summer still facing an imminent invasion – long before the USA entered the hostilities – and Churchill had to use every feint, including the pretence that a peace faction still held considerable sway, to discourage Hitler from making a naval assault when the country’s defences were still weak. Yet he had to deter Stalin from concluding that Britain was finished.

When I wrote this up, my supervisor, Professor Glees, was rightly very critical and interrogatory. I had no primary evidence that this is what was happening, and I suppose my thesis was at that juncture in jeopardy. And then, a sudden bulletin from a contact in the UK arrived: the National Archives had just released (October 2015) a new file on Burgess that confirmed that he had been sent to Moscow in July 1940 to convince the Comintern to abandon its pact with Nazi Germany and join the allies (p 81 of Misdefending the Realm). In other words, Churchill had indeed intended to remind Stalin of Britain’s resolve, and to convince him to ignore rumours of the burgeoning peace movement. In the light of Burgess’s treachery revealed later, politicians and civil servants who knew about his employment by the Foreign Office at that time had covered up the facts when reporting to a sceptical House of Commons on the flight of Burgess and Maclean to the Soviet Union – a conspiracy. When I showed this to Professor Glees, he was convinced, and I could move on.

One of the warnings that Professor Glees constantly gave me was not to ‘chase hares’. While I understand what he meant by this, I disagreed with the advice to the extent that a curious historian has to ‘chase hares’, else he or she will never catch anything of interest at all. Otherwise you end up with the kind of dry-as-dust history that A. J. P. Taylor characterised as ‘what one clerk said to another’, in a famous London Review of Books review in 1982 (see https://www.lrb.co.uk/v04/n03/ajp-taylor/what-one-clerk-said-to-another ). The key is not to get obsessed with any particular lagomorph, and to call off the hunt when the prey in question begins to look like a minor species of unicorn. Burgess in Moscow (which he never reached until he fled in 1951, by the way) was one thing. On the other hand, I remember trying to pin down whether Sedlacek and Roessler, the shadowy figures in the Swiss espionage ring in WWII, were actually one and the same person (for reasons that I shall explore another time), before concluding that the evidence was too flimsy, and that I had to move on. The point is that creating ‘conspiracy theories’ that either turn out to have substance, or have to be abandoned for lack of evidence, is the meat and potatoes of historical research.

One reason why I decided to write this piece is that, in the last few years, I have been privately called out by at least two very respectable academics as being a ‘conspiracy theorist’. This happened because, in the course of email exchanges about historical figures, I had suggested that perhaps things were not as they seemed, and started to explore possible alternative explanations. I believe both persons, whose judgments I overall respect very highly, were perhaps a little too attached to the institution or personage to which or to whom they had dedicated a significant part of their professional life, and became very defensive. And I politely told them so, and said that I thought they were overreacting to private, provocative questions from a curious mind, one trying to seek the truth (or at least, the facts). They were both very reliant on the ‘authorised histories’ for their information, and, when I pointed out that these were very unreliable sources of what actually happened, one of these academics very sensibly responded: ‘But that is all we have’.

And that is the nub of what I see as a major problem. Now that the official or authorised histories have been written about MI5, SIS (although only up to 1949), Intelligence in WWII, and the Joint Intelligence Committee (Volume 1, to 1956), with one on GCHQ scheduled for next year, it leaves many observers perhaps concluding that the deed is done, that there will shortly be no more to be said. But that would be a travesty. A large volume of files is continually being released at Kew that will cause a dramatic re-assessment of what actually occurred. The preamble to the Government Official History series boasts that the aim of the volumes is ‘to produce major histories in their own right, compiled by historians eminent in the field, who are afforded free access to all relevant material in the official archives’. One of the works listed is SOE in France, by M. R. D. Foot, which was written in 1966, when he assuredly did not enjoy ‘free access’ to all the archives. Yet the work had to be revised and updated in 2006, and Professor Foot was fortunately around to perform the job. *  It covers only one country, however: the others remain without an official history. Why? Similar exercises will be needed with the other histories – especially that of MI5, with which I am most familiar.

M R D Foot

[* Attentive readers will recall that I read SOE in France during the passage of Hurricane Florence. I had borrowed this volume from the University Library in Wilmington, but afterwards thought that I should read the 2004 updated edition, which I had to buy via Abebooks. In an extended Preface, Foot admits the embargo put upon him four decades ago on even mentioning SIS, and informs us that “I have been able to be more straightforward about a service from part of which part of SOE derived.”. So are there important new revelations to be made here? There is no entry for SIS, or Gambier-Parry, or Menzies, or Section VIII in the Index, and I thus have to trawl through the text looking for fresh insights. The pages have been reset: the Notes are now at the back. What a drag.]

In Search of a Forum

Thus my objectives in writing about these issues are twofold: first, to gain greater scrutiny on the more dubious claims that have established themselves in the authorised histories, and second, to create a mechanism where they may be examined in detail, and perhaps overturned, or at least clarified. How can these goals be achieved?  For some time I have been looking for a forum where reputable historians and experts could discuss and explore some of the remaining conundrums of British intelligence, espionage, and counter-espionage over the past eighty years or so. I do not believe the conventional media work. The specialty intelligence journals are too exclusive and expensive, and move too slowly. History Today is very cautious about stepping into recent history, with all its controversies of interpretation. There appears to be a lack of drive in the conference business. For example, a few years ago, I was privileged to be invited to a conference on Governments-in-Exile in World War II, hosted at Lancaster House by SIS under the guise of the Foreign Office. It was an excellent event built around a fascinating, underexposed subject, with many impressive speakers from a variety of European countries. The organisers promised that proceedings of the event would be published – but nothing happened.

The Internet should provide part of the answer, but it is too chaotic, too frenzied, and too undisciplined. There are many vitally useful sites for gaining information not available elsewhere (though they need to be processed carefully), but no place where issues can be moderated and discussed seriously without a free-for-all, and insults and . . .  ahem . . . a surfeit of conspiracy theories. In the broader world, cliques and mutual admiration societies exist: cults of personality grow, such as the idolizing that surrounds Sir Christopher Andrew (as I pointed out in August.). The Official Secrets Act exerts its baleful influence. Moreover, it is not always certain that historians possess a sincere desire to discover the facts. I believe that too many experts maintain entrenched positions, sometime forgetting that, since they have been fed certain lines by insiders who may have had a message to get across, the experience may not count as reliable sourcing. Some academics do not like being challenged on any published position they have held, and thus do not encourage an open, egalitarian approach to the discipline, an example of which I offer in the following anecdote.

I occasionally try to contact authors of books on intelligence that I have read, especially when I want to follow up on a point of contention. It also now serves as a way of drawing attention to coldspur and Misdefending the Realm. Sometimes I have to track such persons down through their agents. I am always careful to be polite and deferential, saying how much I enjoyed the book (even if I didn’t), as I know how tough this business of writing is, and how easily mistakes slip in. When one academic published a book on Soviet spycraft a few years ago, I wrote to ask clarification over a matter of identity, as the writer seemed to have conflated the names of two ‘illegal’ Soviet agents into one – namely Ignaty Reif and Ignace Reiss. The response was sharp, patronising, and dismissive. I was instructed to read his text more carefully. I persevered. In the end, I had to resort to pointing out the photographs of the two characters in Deadly Illusions, the book about Alexander Orlov by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, and to asking the historian whether he thought they were the same person. I could imagine the gulp at the other end of the line. The author rather grudgingly admitted that I was right, and said he would correct the error (which would not have been a simple task) in the second edition of his book. At least he responded. Not everyone does.

The perennial problem is that so many loose end and unresolved mysteries exist in the world of intelligence, and so many untruths are perpetuated by careless assimilation that a process for bringing some order to the chaos is highly desirable. Ever since I first published my blog on Officially Unreliable, I have imagined putting on a colloquium around that theme, where assembled experts would present papers that would then be discussed. These matters are complex. Competence in intelligence matters needs to be complemented by expertise in civil and constitutional law, in wireless telegraphy, and in political and military history – even in psychology. I understand that some academics would be hesitant to display their knowledge of a subject in the company of rivals, but I still thought such a forum would be of immense interest to many who study security and intelligence affairs. I thus suggested such an event to the faculty at the University of Buckingham, compiling a sample agenda with speakers, as I thought it would show thought-leadership, and add to the prestige of the department. Unfortunately, after some initial enthusiasm, the idea went nowhere, and likewise a plan for a conference in partnership with another entity also foundered.

Trouble in Aberystwyth

Gregynog Hall, Aberystwyth

With this background, in mid-August Professor Glees happened to wonder whether I would be interested in presenting at a conference on intelligence that the University of Aberystwyth is holding this November. I jumped at the opportunity: it would be a chance to get myself in front of an audience, and I could perhaps combine the trip to the UK with some opportunities with other institutions to talk about my book. I checked out the website, noticed that submissions for papers had to be in by August 25, and thus compiled a description based on some of my recent research into wireless transmission and interception that I thought would be of lively interest. (The Conference did not specify any real agenda at that time.) After a few days, I received a brief message acknowledging my submission, and requesting me to fill out a registration form (with payment).

Well, of course I was not going to register until I knew my submission had been accepted. I had explained in my covering letter the logistics problems: Aberystwyth knew where I lived, and what was involved. So I waited. And waited. About a month later, I checked the website again. The expiration date for submissions was now September 25, but there was still nothing published about conference tracks, themes, committed outside speakers, etc. I had notionally given up on the idea as a waste of time, when Professor Glees, in a solicitous email about Hurricane Florence, happened to ask me whether I would be attending the conference. I replied immediately, telling the Professor what had happened, and saying that I thought that the whole thing was a disaster.

Then a couple of days later, I received a very brief email from Aberystwyth from someone who just signed his name as ‘Gerry’, with no indication of his role at the university, saying merely: “Your paper has been accepted.  Please proceed with your registration”, again providing a link to the sign-up url. My guess was that Professor Glees probably knew the people there, and had intervened on my behalf, and his contacting them had provoked this message. So I very warmly thanked ‘Gerry’, but explained again the logistics of the situation, and that I was not going to commit to attending the conference until I knew a lot more about its substance, the requirements for submitting papers, the main speakers, etc. etc. – quite natural requests by any active participant, I would have thought. I replied the same day (September 21), and immediately started contacting other institutions in the UK at which I thought I might also speak, admitting that it was very short notice, but explaining the dilemma I was in.

Two of these institutions responded immediately – enthusiastically but cautiously, given the lack of time to prepare. Six weeks later, I am still awaiting a proper response from Aberystwyth. (I received a brief acknowledgment from an administrator on October 5, who wrote that Gerry would get back to me ‘as soon as possible’. ‘You mean when he has recovered from the Eisteddfod?’ Have I walked into a David Lodge novel?) I have therefore told my other contacts that I shall not be going ahead with my visit. I know a fair amount about the conference business, having worked for Gartner Group for over twelve years, and I can confidently say that the University of Aberystwyth is the biggest shambles I have yet encountered. All they really wanted was my money – and they seem utterly unaware that I don’t even get out of bed for less than £10,000.  It is all very unprofessional and discourteous, and I do not understand why anyone would attend one of its conferences unless he or she were ordered to.

Some of my friends were alarmed by my resolve. “Don’t you realise, Tony, that you’ll never eat lunch in Aberystwyth again!”, and “Won’t that scotch your chances of ever being invited to join Sir Christopher Andrew’s Cambridge Security Initiative?” And I shrugged my shoulders, saying: “If those are the sacrifices that have to be made when calling out rank incompetence, then so be it.” And I quoted to them what the great T. H. Huxley said: “Those who elect to be free in thought and deed must not hanker after the rewards, if they are to be so called, which the world offers to those who put up with its fetters.” (That would be a good watchword for historians with an eye on awards and gongs.) The conference for the Centre for Intelligence and International Security Studies (see https://www.aber.ac.uk/en/interpol/research/research-centres-and-institutes/ciiss/ciissconference2018/: still no agenda, as I write on October 31, for an event to be held in two weeks’ time) will have to go on without me. (Is there a conspiracy afoot?)

One last initiative I made to help publicise my cause was to write to the Press just before I published my recent piece on the faked suicide of ter Braak. I fondly imagined that, with the continued public interest in matters of espionage, occasionally highlighted by the release of new materials at the National Archives, my hitherto untold story of extrajudicial murder of an Abwehr agent engineered by MI5 during World War II might constitute a considerable scoop for one of the British dailies. I thus gave a glimpse of my findings, serially to the Times the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Mail, alerting them to my imminent posting, and inviting them to put together a coincident story around my publication date at the end of the month. None of the newspapers even acknowledged my email, even though they had provided an address for the public to submit stories to them. I did the same with Private Eye (knowing that it had been largely responsible for unmasking Anthony Blunt: see http://www.private-eye.co.uk/covers/cover-468 ), accepting that the matter was probably not really current enough for its ambit. I did receive a courteous declinatory email from the Editor, Ian Hislop.

The Nub of the Matter

So what is the meat of all this? Are these just specialist issues of intelligence arcana? I think not. Intelligence history is of little value unless it is deeply integrated into political and military history. Stalin manipulated Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta because his spies in the UK and the USA forewarned him of their negotiating tactics over Eastern Europe. He mistrusted the commitment of his Alliance counterparts because they fed to him only a small edited sub-section of the ULTRA decrypts that his agents were sending to him through the London Embassy. The invasion of Europe could have been fatally undermined because of the reckless way that the XX Committee and B.1a in MI5 orchestrated the wireless transmissions of their Abwehr double agents. These are the kinds of question that I have been pursuing in my research, trying to gain attention to my argument that the official and unofficial histories of WWII and the Cold War need always to be re-assessed in the light of fresh developments.

I have developed a classification for such issues into seven states. These are not necessarily stages through which issues pass, but it may be that an evolution from 1 to 7 does occur in some cases.
State 1: No apparent public controversy exists. The official (or ‘authorised’) explanation is broadly accepted and echoed, but questions of evidence or logic gather on the truth of the claim, and are not easily dispelled. Examples of State 1 are Churchill’s reported edict on banning any decryption of Russian signals after the Soviet Union entered the war, and the still not satisfactorily explained death of Hugh Gaitskell.

State 2: No discernible ‘official’ position exists. A matter of intelligence is covered with contradictions and paradoxes, with no distinctive theory gaining strong support. The truth may be lost in ‘the wilderness of mirrors’. An example of State 2 is the allegiance and role of the scientist Wilfrid Mann when assigned to work in the USA.

State 3: A maverick theory carrying some definite sense is postulated, but its sources are undefined or dubious: the hypothesis may be diminished because of very constrained publicity and awareness. Examples of State 3 are the possible execution of Gösta Caroli, and the claim that Michael Foot was a KGB agent of influence.

State 4: A serious debate among historians takes place, reflecting multiple views. Some sources may be verifiable, but they are frequently secondary, and carelessly repeated: questions still remain unresolved because of the lack of primary sources. Examples of State 4 are Britain’s use of the Rote Drei in Switzerland to communicate ULTRA to Stalin, and the identification of the Soviet spy with the cryptonym ELLI.

State 5: Strong support for an alternative explanation is found, but it lacks conclusive evidence, and thus cannot be accepted in official forums. An example of State 5 is the assertion that Admiral Canaris was not simply a plotter against Hitler, but was actively assisting British intelligence.

State 6: A carefully argued new explanation, backed up by solid research, receives local or peer-group acceptance, but is not broadly or officially accepted, probably owing to lack of awareness and interest, and may have segments missing.  Examples of State 6 are this author’s explanation that the political objective of Guy Burgess’s mission to Moscow was known and approved by leading civil servants, and my theory that Soviet agent SONIA’s arrival in the UK was orchestrated by SIS and MI5.

State 7:  A simmering ‘conspiracy theory’ is resolved and accepted, becoming part of authorised history, or is at least recognized by leading established historians: sceptics, however, may turn against the establishment for making official what is still unpopular in some quarters. An example of State 7 is the confirmation through the VENONA transcripts that Alger Hiss was indeed a Soviet agent, which has provoked some leftist backlash to the effect that this is an establishment conspiracy theory, and that he was in fact innocent.

An Alphabet-Sized List of Intelligence Mysteries from WWII & After

I conclude this piece by listing twenty-six conundrums that I have come across during my researches. For the sake of conciseness (at the risk of over-simplification) I restrict my description of each to 75 words. They appear in no particular order. (Readers who would like to inspect a deeper coverage of a subset of such topics might like to look at Nigel West’s Unreliable Witness: Espionage Myths of World War II, published in London in 1984. It appeared in the USA the following year with the title A Thread of Deceit – and the same sub-title.)

A. The cover-up over Guy Burgess: The House of Commons was misled over Guy Burgess’s career when the post-mortem into Burgess’s and Maclean’s escape occurred. Sir Patrick Reilly provided a parliamentary response which completely overlooked Burgess’s employment by the Foreign Office and D Section before and during the war, claiming that he had simply worked for the BBC. Who exactly knew about his mission to Moscow, and who ordered his activities to be hushed up? (State: 6)

B. Roessler & Sedlacek: Roessler was the shadowy figure identified as LUCY in the Swiss spy ring. But Alexander Foote wrote that LUCY was the Czech intelligence officer Sedlacek (aka Selzinger), who was issued with a British passport by SIS before he went to Switzerland. Were Roessler and Sedlacek one person? Is Roessler’s well-publicised bio, showing a life in Germany, fake? Or was Foote confused? Why was his error not corrected? Can anyone supply a photograph of Sedlacek? (State: 1)

C. ULTRA & Rote Drei: While the official line is that ULTRA was never distributed to Stalin through an Anglo-Soviet spy ring in Switzerland, too many prominent voices have claimed otherwise. It is a much more plausible explanation than that of LUCY receiving his information directly from inside German intelligence. If Foote was an agent of Dansey’s Z Organisation, the answer becomes even clearer. Why were claims from insiders so strenuously denied? (State: 4)

D. Foote & the Z Organisation: Much of the evidence points towards the fact that Alexander Foote, who had outwardly been recruited to Soviet espionage through the International Brigade in Spain, was in fact a member of Claude Dansey’s parallel intelligence structure to SIS, the Z organisation. Foote’s role as an apprentice to – and then replacement for – agent SONIA (Ursula Kuczynski) then makes much more sense, even though officers in Z denied it. Why wouldn’t they? (State: 3)

E. Double-Cross agents & the Radio Security Service: Many commentators have observed that the wireless transmission practices of several XX agents in WWII were highly reckless, and should have caused German intelligence to question the efficiency of Britain’s wireless detection mechanisms. Even if the Abwehr was tacitly sympathetic to anti-Hitler initiatives, why did the XX Committee and the London Controlling Station risk the whole plan of deceit by condoning such irresponsible behaviour? (State: 1)

F. Manipulation of agent SONIA: The ease with which agent SONIA was able to pass, in the winter of 1940-41, from Switzerland to the UK via Portugal has been overlooked. Yet a close study of the archives show that she was abetted by generous practices on behalf of SIS and MI5 (and by Foote’s perjury), which facilitated her being installed in Oxfordshire as a Soviet spy. Was this all in fact engineered by Claude Dansey of the Z Organisation? (State: 6)

G. The Identification of ELLI: ELLI was the cryptonym of a Soviet agent – probably in MI5 – disclosed by the defector Gouzenko in 1945. Various theories have been promoted as to who lay behind the name: Guy Liddell (John Costello); Roger Hollis (Chapman Pincher); and Leo Long (Christopher Andrew, the authorised historian, relying on Gordievsky). For various reasons, all are unlikely, and the answer may rely on the opening of Russian archives. When, President Putin? (State: 4)

H. Leo Long in MI14: When Joan Miller published ‘One Girl’s War’ in 1986, the British government tried to ban it. It contained an obvious pointer to the detection of Leo Long’s wartime espionage in MI14, working for Anthony Blunt. It seems obvious that MI5 tried to hush up the discovery up at that time, and Long was even recruited for intelligence work in Germany after the war. What was going on, and why has Miller’s work been overlooked? (State: 6)

I. Fuchs as British agent?: In his biography of Klaus Fuchs, ‘The Spy Who Changed the World’, Mike Rossiter tells of files he found at Kew that suggested that Fuchs was collaborating with the British government while at Los Alamos. These files were subsequently withdrawn, and other files have been withheld. Why the secrecy? It could be another reason for MI5’s considerable coyness over the Fuchs affair, but why would Fuchs have not brought it up at his trial? (State: 1)

J. Demise of Denniston: Alistair Denniston was a loyal and (mostly) effective leader of GC&CS from 1919 to 1942, yet he alone of all chiefs was not knighted, and his pension was reduced – a major humiliation. Was there a reason beyond his rather dilatory response to the organisational problems posed by the growth of the unit? The published records are contradictory: did Denniston simply rebel too outspokenly at the intrusion of military experts on his turf? (State: 1)

K. Churchill’s ban on Soviet traffic: Professor Hinsley reported on Churchill’s edict, when the Soviet Union became an ally in June 1941, that its diplomatic cable and wireless traffic should not be inspected. Uncharacteristically for Churchill, however, no minuted decision was made, and we know that work did continue, especially when Denniston’s project on ISCOT messages was set up in 1943. Was it a PR exercise by Churchill designed to gain Stalin’s attention and cooperation? (State: 1)

L. Colonel Simpson: One of the astutest contributions to Britain’s wireless interception capabilities was made by Lt.-Col. Simpson of MI5, in 1939 and 1940, when the RSS reported to Military Intelligence. Simpson wanted RSS to report to MI5, but it was wrested away from him, eventually landing with SIS, and he was quickly moved away. An internal history of MI5 says this led to a ‘Greek tragedy’. The authorised history of MI5 ignores Simpson. Why? (State: 1)

M. Wilfrid Mann: The atomic scientist Wilfrid Mann wrote a memoir titled ’Was there a Fifth Man?’, essentially denying it, and then on his deathbed admitted it was he, even as self-described ‘experts’ declared his innocence. Yet CIA agents claimed that Mann had been turned by them, after he had been assigned to work in the USA, to feed information to Donald Maclean. What is the real truth about his career and his loyalties? (State: 2)

N. Death of Gaitskell: When Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell’s sudden death in 1956 was diagnosed as lupus, some wondered whether he had been poisoned at the Soviet Embassy, perhaps to enable Moscow’s favoured Harold Wilson to replace him. When such a plot was debunked, however, the possible poisoning was forgotten. Could Gaitskell’s presence at Kim Philby’s 1934 marriage in Vienna had something to do with it? Was Gaitskell planning to unmask him? (State: 1)

O. Ter Braak’s ‘Suicide’: The circumstances of the claimed suicide of the Abwehr spy who parachuted into Britain in early November 1940 are extremely suspicious. The archival evidence points to the fact that MI5 engineered his death after trying to surveil his espionage activities and wireless traffic. MI5 probably concluded that matters had run irretrievably out of control when ter Braak ran out of money, and was abandoned by the Abwehr. Was he then eliminated in a faked suicide? (State: 6)

P. MI5’s passivity over Gouzenko: When the information about the Soviet defector in Canada, Igor Gouzenko, was passed on to London in September 1945, the cable was routed to Kim Philby of SIS, instead of MI5, who was responsible for espionage on Canadian territory. Guy Liddell thus learned about the defection from Philby, who took control of the response, arranging for Roger Hollis to be sent to Toronto to interview Gouzenko. Why was MI5 so passive? (State: 1)

Q. Execution of Gösta Caroli?: The Swedish Abwehr agent Gösta Caroli, who had been ‘turned’ by MI5, in January 1941 reneged on his agreement, tried to throttle his guard, and to escape across the North Sea. He was captured, and incarcerated, and reputedly returned to Sweden after the war. Leonard Mosley (and others) say he was hanged to protect the XX System. His files at Kew stop abruptly. What really happened? Was he ‘bumped off’, as Liddell’s Diary strongly suggests? (State: 3)

R. Dansey & SOE: Claude Dansey, assistant chief of SIS under Menzies, was reputed (according to the witness Sir Patrick Reilly) to have schemed to undermine the efforts of SOE, and was witnessed celebrating some of its failures. Apart from a disdain for noisy sabotage projects that interfered with gaining intelligence, and his contempt for university-trained men, what else lay behind this reputation? And, as a believer in ‘turning’ agents, was he SIS’s representative on the XX Committee? (State: 1)

S. Rothschild a Soviet agent of influence: Victor Rothschild made strenuous efforts to clear his name of the accusation that he had been a Soviet spy, yet his associations with such as Burgess and Philby, and his other actions furthering the communist cause, cause such as Christopher Andrew to suggest that he was an equally dangerous agent of influence. Were he and his wife the couple given the cryptonyms DAVID and ROSA? His name is carefully redacted from many files at Kew. (State: 5)

T. Isaiah Berlin in Lisbon: Isaiah Berlin, intriguing between SIS’s Section D and the Jewish Agency, happened to be in Lisbon in January 1941 when agent SONIA was granted her visa to travel to the UK. She also learned from somebody the address in Oxford where her father was staying. Was Berlin – who had recently accompanied Guy Burgess on their abandoned mission to Moscow, and just visited Oxford – her courier? What else was he up to in Lisbon? (State: 3)

U. The sacking of Jane Archer: The only source for the October 1940 sacking of Jane Archer, MI5’s shrewdest counter-subversion officer, is from her boss, Guy Liddell, who ascribes it to her continued mocking of the acting head of MI5, Jasper Harker. But did Liddell and Archer, who then headed the team of Regional Security Liaison Officers, have a serious fall-out over double-agent policy? Archival evidence points to a very pivotal meeting just before the event. (State: 1)

V. The disappearance of Major Frost & W Section: Malcolm Frost was recruited by Guy Liddell from the BBC in the summer of 1940 to fill the radio interception vacancy created by Lt.-Col. Simpson’s departure. Frost quickly gained enemies, but was a survivor, and did not leave MI5 until November 1942. So why does the authorised history completely overlook his contribution, and his group, W Section, especially since Frost was in charge of double-agents when the Abwehr LENA operation was executed? (State: 1)

W. Michael Foot as Soviet agent of influence: In his memoir, the Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky claimed that the Labour leader Michael Foot had been a Soviet agent, BOOT, something that was enthusiastically picked up by Ben Macintyre in his volume ‘The Spy and the Traitor’. Private Eye has already come to Foot’s defence, pointing to his published criticism of the Soviet regime. Was Foot an ‘agent of influence’, and did he really accept money from Soviet contacts? How reliable is Gordievsky? (State: 3)

X. Cairncross’s Confession: The Fifth Man John Cairncross managed to hoodwink both his interrogators from MI5 as well as Nigel West, the writer who collaborated on his memoir ‘The Enigma Spy’. A careful study of the chronology shows he was active much longer than he claimed. Why were the obvious anomalies in his account of the chronology and his activities not pursued more aggressively? And why was he allowed to go into exile? (State: 2)

Y. SONIA and the Quebec Agreement: It has now entered popular historical lore that one of agent SONIA’s major coups was the revelation of the Quebec Agreement to her bosses in Moscow. Yet such claims rest on an impossible sequence of events in the autumn of 1941, and, despite authoritative-sounding assertions, no conclusive evidence has emerged from the Russian archives. If the secret was revealed to the Soviets (probably in the USA), who was responsible? (State: 3)

Z. Walter Gill: Walter Gill, the Oxford don recruited to RSS, who essentially defined Britain’s policy towards interception and detection of possible German spies at the end of 1940, was mysteriously and perfunctorily sacked from RSS a few months later. Yet the delayed timing of his report (December 1940) was very odd: he made a fatal but obvious flaw in his conclusions, but the report was endorsed. Was he set up? Why was he fired? (State: 1)

This list is not inclusive, nor its artificial length constrained: items may be retired, and new ones added. I welcome feedback. But why, I wonder, is there apparently not very much interest in these matters? Is it due simply to indolence, or is it a lack of curiosity? Extrajudicial executions, poisonings, faked suicides, moles, double agents, secret organisations, unexplained slights, hidden archives, political denials – is this not all as topical as ever? I cannot believe everyone is ganging up in a dark conspiracy to silence me. Or maybe everything is as it should be, and I am simply imagining things  . . . In order that these conundrums not be forgotten, I thus lay them all out on coldspur for others to pick up, just in case my body is found one misty morning under a hedge in County Ceredigion.

An Update on ter Braak

I have a professional researcher and collaborator in London, Dr. Kevin Jones (whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting) who is an expert at navigating the indexes at Kew, and who on my behalf inspects undigitised files at the National Archives, namely those that I cannot acquire and download. He has recently been delving around some of the lesser known folders that have a bearing on the ter Braak case, and I wanted to bring some aspects of these to readers’ attention to provide an update to the analysis outlined in last month’s blog.

One of the challenging dimensions of ter Braak’s life as a fugitive is the level of political compliance in the plan to let him roam, and then to eliminate him. It is clear from Swinton’s endorsement of the initiative for a speedy inquest, and his approval of the decision not to engage in recriminations over the Cambridge Police Force, that he was either party to the original decision, or had been convinced of the need for extraordinary measures when matters started to run out of control. Given the speed with which actions progressed after ter Braak’s death, it is more probable that he had approved the whole operation in advance.

But how much did Churchill know? Swinton had been brought in by Churchill to oversee MI5, and parts of SIS, after Vernon Kell had been dismissed, since Churchill was not confident in MI5’s ability to defend the country against the ‘Fifth Column’ menace that he then believed had been a prime factor in the defeat of the France and the Low Countries. Swinton had not been a universally popular choice at the House of Commons, but, when the Fifth Column ‘menace’ was shown by August 1940 to have been illusory, Swinton’s supervision of MI5, and mission to help Jasper Harker, the acting Director-General, to rebuild the service, continued, and his focus on subversion shifted to the arrival of the Abwehr agents. The files PREM 3/418/1 and 2 show records pertaining to the establishment of Swinton’s Committee, the Home Defence (Security) Executive, and correspondence on enemy agents between Swinton and the Prime Minister.

On September 10, Churchill made a request at Cabinet for a report on information obtained from enemy agents in the UK. The records show that he was informed about the declared mission of the four agents who landed in Kent (three of whom were executed) and of Gösta Caroli (who was successfully ‘turned’ – for a while). Reports from the interrogations indicated that the spies believed they were the advance guard of an invasion that was to follow in a couple of weeks. When Swinton reported, on October 4, on the spies who landed by boat in Scotland, however, he showed that Churchill already knew about ‘Agent 5 and Agent 6 who are being used successfully in deception operations already’. The list provided to Churchill has yet been found, but is highly noteworthy that it cannot be the same list that MI5 used for RSLO training (KV 4/407), since ter Braak appeared there as Agent 5, but he had not yet arrived when this memorandum was written!

Thus we have proof that Churchill knew about the emerging Double-Cross operation as early as October 1940, if not sooner. This all goes against the grain of what the authorised historians tell us. In his recent book, The Secret World, Christopher Andrew suggests that the first report given by MI5 to Churchill on the actions of the XX Committee did not occur until March 26, 1943. “It was an instant success with the Prime Minister. Churchill wrote on it in red ink: ‘deeply interesting’”, writes Andrew. This is rather hard to believe: that Churchill, with his massive interest in intelligence matters, and having been made aware of Nazi agents being used for deception in the autumn of 1940, would let the matter drop for two-and-half years.

In addition, it would seem that Swinton was passing Churchill a longer list than was being maintained by MI5. Given what I have written about overlooked spies not appearing in the official records, it would be fascinating to learn what names had been given to the Prime Minister at this stage. The archive is confoundingly sparse at this point. On October 31, Swinton advised Churchill of the arrival of the spies Lund, Edvardsen and Joost, but the narrative stops on November 2, just after ter Braak has landed. Is that significant? The search for other revealing items that might fill out this story continues.

At this stage, one can only speculate what went on between Swinton and Churchill. Since ter Braak was not a captured spy, perhaps Swinton would have interpreted his guidance literally, and decided to conceal the project from his boss. What would Churchill have thought of an armed agent running loose in the Cambridge area? Might he have approved of the plan to monitor his activities in order to learn more? Knowing his expressed desire at this time to see more spies executed, however, it is more likely that he would have cancelled the project, and have ter Braak hauled in. I just hope that some other records are found that shed light on this intriguing dynamic.

I also made some changes to the September text in the light of a re-discovery of passages in Guy Liddell’s Diaries, to which Dr. Giselle Jakobs had pointed me. I had read these a long time ago when I was not focussed on the LENA agents. They show very clearly that, just after Caroli’s recapture, Liddell discussed very seriously with his superiors (and Valentine Vivian in SIS) the possibility of ‘elimination’ or ‘bumping off’ of recalcitrant German agents. This is not the language of judicial trial and possible execution. Yet Caroli’s possible career after incarceration is plagued with contradictions, a matter to which I shall eventually have to return. In the meantime, please see Dr. Jakobs’s website at http://www.josefjakobs.info/ for a recent posting on Caroli,

Lastly (for this month, anyway!), is the fate of Jasper Harker. In last month’s blog, I had begun to cast doubt on Guy Liddell’s declared rationale for Jane Archer’s dismissal, namely that she had ridiculed Harker one time too many. Liddell reports the sacking on November 18, 1940, and, two days later, suggests that she should speak to David Petrie. Clearly, by that time Petrie has already been invited to take over the direction of MI5, so Harker’s fate was effectively sealed at that time. Ironically, Swinton was one of the few (apart from the disgraced Vernon Kell) who had supported Harker, and saw it as part of his mission to help him with the reconstruction of MI5. What PREM 3/418/1 shows is that, as early as August 29, 1940, Desmond Morton (an ex-MI5 officer, and Churchill’s right-hand man on intelligence) was telling Churchill of the multiple criticisms of Harker from within MI5, and reported that he was ‘a weak man’. Given the military circumstances, and the pressures, it seems that Swinton (whose judgment of character was not good, as is shown by his endorsements of Joseph Ball and William Crocker) was slow in realising that Harker was not up to the job, while Jane Archer – alongside multiple other officers in MI5 – had come to the conclusion much earlier that he was dragging down morale. It casts even more doubt on the reason for Archer’s forced departure, and, if a meeting with Petrie could not salvage her employment in MI5, suggests that there were deeper reasons for the parting of the ways.

This month’s new Commonplace entries can be seen here.

1 Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Literature/Academia, Personal, Politics

Special Bulletin: Hurricane Florence

Trees down on the triangle with Irwin Drive

I interrupt my regular bulletins to report on our experiences with Hurricane Florence. This major storm passed directly over St. James, in Southport, North Carolina, where our family lives, and caused some catastrophic devastation. It left us without power for several days, and we were able to keep up with what was going on only through our battery-driven radio, and cellphone contact with friends – some of whom had evacuated the town for safer havens. St. James issued a ‘mandatory’ evacuation order, but that meant that, if you did decide to stay, it was at your own risk, with no access to emergency facilities. About 300 families – maybe 15-20% of the occupants of St. James – decided, like us, to sit it out.

We have survived hurricanes up to a category 3 or even 4 beforehand. We have a variety of hurricane-shutters installed. While we are only a couple of miles from the ocean, we reside at the highest point in St James, about thirty feet above sea-level, which means we drain quickly. Brunswick County beaches face south-west, so the winds are normally less severe. We have stands of trees protecting us on the south side, where the first, ninth and seventh holes of the Members Club golf course – as well as the driving-range – help to break up the fiercest gales. And our closest friends are 1500 miles away. All of which reinforced our decision to stay. But we do not have a generator. . .

Our shutters are of a variety. Several are managed by a hand-driven crank, with a ratchet mechanism. Many are true shutters, which are closed and secured by bolting on a simple iron rod – downstairs from the outside (see picture) and upstairs from the inside, with one notable exception. We also have concertina-type doors that roll across the two large window-doors at the back of the house. The front door, and the windows of the recently converted back porch are all designed to resist hurricane-force 4 winds.

The hurricane shutters at No. 3835

But this was no ordinary hurricane. It was enormous – about half the size of France, which is 210,000 square miles. And even though it was only a category 2 when it made landfall at Wrightsville Beach, it brought an enormous volume of water with it. The water temperatures in the western Atlantic were very warm (in the 80s Fahrenheit), which gave Florence some enormous punch. She took a very slow and erratic path, which meant she stayed over the Cape Fear region for days. Forty inches of rain was expected in some parts (I am writing this on Sunday 16th September, without access to any news). Moreover, the ground was saturated. We have had sixty inches of rain this year before Florence arrived – over half of in the summer months – which means that trees were weakened, and there was nowhere for the water to go. Storm surge – abetted by the tides when they were high – was the biggest danger.

So Florence arrived on Thursday afternoon, when the first drops fell. We lost power about sixteen hours later. At noon on Friday, the eye passed over us, an episode normally accompanied by clear skies and calmness, although we learned from observation and the radio that the eye had filled in with rain. Two hours later, the gales returned, and it has been raining – mostly in torrents – ever since (11:00 am on Sunday, as I write), when raindrops are still falling into the new stream in our back yard. That means that the backside of the storm spent about forty-five hours to pass through: at two miles per hour, about 800 miles in radius. (I make these estimates with the help of my spies watching the radar on the Weather Channel from out-of-state safe houses, and communicating with me over an encrypted cellular connection. For security reasons, I cannot identify them by name, but their cryptonyms are ORCHARDIST, SAILOR, and TREASURER. They know who they are, and I am very grateful to them.)

At the end of our driveway

But this is a very serious matter. People have lost their lives, and property damage must be immense. We are in the hands of highly dedicated engineers and linesmen trying to restore our power. St. James is isolated, with all access roads impassable, and the main interstates (95 & 40) are also closed off in sections. I have not ventured beyond my driveway, but the flooding here must be disastrous in places. A few trees came down in the triangle opposite our house, but fortunately did not damage any property. One of Sylvia’s Bradford peartrees did not survive.

Sylvia’s Bradford Pear – probably cannot be replanted

I also took a few photographs of the flooded 1st hole at the Members Club, by the tee of which our house sits. (See below). We shall learn more soon, I hope.

The picturesque first hole at the Members Club. Be sure to take enough club to carry the demanding water hazard that bestrides the fairway . . .

Now you have cleared the water, you will need all of your 3-wood to reach this demanding par five, with its green well-protected by sand and water, and then face a tricky eagle putt.

Looking back to the first tee of the Members Club ‘Water Hole’. (Actually all eighteen are now called ‘the Water Hole’.)

And what about that last shutter? For some reason, the house designer decided that for two windows – in separate rooms – upstairs, each window would not have its own internal bar, but instead they would be linked and secured by an external bar that crossed the intervening wall. That means that a ladder has to be used to free the shutters, fold them back, and then bolt the shared bar tight. And the ladder has to be moved. Well, not only do I not really work on ladders any more, since the last practice I had with this, several years ago, the holly-tree in front of the windows has grown to such an extent that I had to abandon the exercise (see photograph), and risk the possibility that hurtling pine-cones (very dangerous missiles, by the way) would not break through our defenses.

The exposed windows!

One benefit of all of this was that I had a little nook during the day where enough light came through that I was able to read, as there was little else to do but meditate. (I was able to read Professor Foot’s extraordinary ‘SOE in France’, written in 1966 when he could not even admit that SIS existed.) During one long session, I started calculating how much water Florence actually dropped on SE North Carolina. If you take a section of 10000 square miles, which is not massive, just a portion of the tract that Florence covered, and a tenth of Florence’s area – Brunswick County is 1050 square miles, about 150 % of the size of Surrey, England, the area of which is 642 square miles – and project 40 inches of rain, I could fairly easily calculate mentally the number of cubic yards of water that must have fallen in the broader local area. Then I had to convert that number into recognizable gallons. But how many gallons in a cubic yard? I reckoned about 40, but the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed me the divisor was 54. So I was able to adjust my result to come up with 2,000,000,000,000 gallons, that is 2 European billion, and an American 2,000 billion. That means 6 cubic miles of water for the section I describe. Multiply that by six, and Coldspur diehards will recall that this amount would be enough to fill Lake Tahoe.

[Note: On September 19, the New York Times reported that Florence had dumped 8 trillion gallons on North Carolina alone. Sounds right.]

Lastly, I plucked from my shelves ‘The Connoisseur’s Crossword Book’, edited by Alan Cash, and published by Penguin in 1964. I had completed a few of the puzzles, but most had lain dormant, and it was a convenient way of spending the time, alternately reading a couple of clues by flashlight, and then trying to solve them in the dark. The first few were by the ‘legendary’ (though he did in fact exist) Ximenes, and it surprised me a) how verbose he was allowed (or allowed himself) to be, and b) how unXiminean his clueing occasionally was. Thus I was initially baffled by the following:
‘Refer with a certain amount of freedom – yes, with more of it (5)’, until I realized it was much more obvious than I had imagined. I believe the Times of today would have rejected what D. S. MacNutt was able to deploy in the Observer sixty year ago. He disobeyed some of his own rules (such as clue length), and his clues reflect a number of awkward structures (e.g. overuse of ‘I’ and cockneyisms, clumsy joining segments, superfluous ‘thes’ in anagrams, duplicated signifiers in the same puzzle, rather dubious indicators of troublesome letter sequences, and references to living persons), as well as classic and literary references that would be considered far too academic and esoteric for today’s solvers. Still, his influence on the craft of cruciverbalism was enormous, and I believe that individual setter styles ought to be allowed to transcend too rigorous formalism.

My thanks to everyone – especially those in England – who passed on their good wishes at a time that I was not able to respond. I shall do so individually. In the meantime, expect a stunning and shocking story on Coldspur on the regular last day of the month. This one will blow you away more than Florence ever could!

The power was restored at about 8 a.m. today, Monday. Wilmington still cut off, St. James still isolated, and water not potable, but we are making progress. Yet there is more rain forecast, and I hear thunder in the background, and it is getting closer.

Postscript: Now that we are on-line again, I can see how devastating the damage has been, how many lives were lost, and how many are suffering. We were lucky, and I thank all the responders and service people helping out those whose property has been ruined by the storm. In fact, just as I was about to post this on Monday afternoon, we lost cable, Internet and telephone service. It came back at about 1:50 today, Tuesday.

2 Comments

Filed under Crosswords, Geography, Personal, Science

Homo Sovieticus

Aeroflot Advertisement, New York Times, 2017

A few months ago, I noticed an advertisement that Aeroflot, the Russian carrier, had placed in the New York Times. The appearance reminded me of an approach I had made to the airline over forty-five years ago, in England, when, obviously with not enough serious things to do at the time, and maybe overtaken by some temporary lovelorn Weltschmerz, I had written a letter to its Publicity Manager, suggesting a slogan that it might profitably use to help promote its brand.

Miraculously, this letter recently came to light as I was sorting out some old files. I keep telling my wife, Sylvia, that she need not worry about the clutter that I have accumulated and taken with me over the years – from England to Connecticut, to New Jersey and to Pennsylvania, and then back to Connecticut before our retirement transplantation to North Carolina in 2001. The University of Eastern Montana has generously committed to purchasing the whole Percy archive, so that it will eventually be boxed up and sent to the Ethel Hays Memorial Library in Billings for careful and patient inspection by students of mid-twentieth century social life in suburban Surrey, England.

I reproduce the letter here:

Letter to Aeroflot, March 1972

It reads:

“Dear Sir,

I notice that you have started advertising on London buses. I have for some time thought that a good slogan for Aeroflot would be: ‘Happiness is just an Ilyushin’, which is a pretty awful pun, but a fairly Russian sentiment. E.G.

. . .В себя ли заглянешь, там прошлого нет и следа;

И радость, и муки, и всё там ничтожно . . .  (Lermontov)

Yours faithfully, R. A. Percy”

[Dimitri Obolensky, in the Penguin Book of Russian Verse, translates this fragment of an untitled poem as follows: “If you look within yourself, there is not a trace of the past there; the joys and the torments – everything there is worthless  . . .”]

I am not sure why Aeroflot was advertising on London Transport vehicles at the time, since the Man on the Clapham Omnibus was probably not considering then a holiday in Sochi or Stalingrad, and anyone who did not have to use the airline would surely choose the western equivalent. Nevertheless, I thought my sally quite witty at the time, though I did not receive the favour of a reply. Did homo sovieticus, with his known frail sense of humour, not deem my proposal worthy of merit? After all, humour was a dangerous commodity in Soviet times: repeating a joke about Stalin might get you denounced by a work colleague or neighbour and sent to the Gulag, while Stalin himself derived his variety of laughs from ordering Khrushchev to dance the gopak late at night, and forcing his drinking-pals on the Politburo to watch him.

I think it unlikely that the state-controlled entity would have hired a Briton as its publicity manager, but of course it may not have had a publicity manager at all. Maybe my letter did not reach the right person, or maybe it did, but he or she could not be bothered to reply to some eccentric Briton. Or maybe the letter was taken seriously, but then the manager thought about Jimmy Ruffin’s massive 1966 hit What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQywZYoGB1g) , and considered that its vibrant phrase ‘Happiness is just an illusion/filled with darkness and confusion’ might not communicate the appropriate atmosphere as Aeroflot’s passengers prepared to board the 11:40 flight from Heathrow to Minsk. We shall never know.

The Stalin-Class S. S. Baltika

My first real encounter with homo sovieticus had occurred when I was a member of a school party to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1965. As we went through customs after disembarking from the good ship Baltika, I recall the officer asking me, in all seriousness, whether I was bringing in ‘veppons’ with me. After verifying what he had asked, I was able to deny such an attempt at contrabandage. I had conceived of no plans to abet an armed uprising in the Land of the Proletariat, as I thought it might deleteriously affect my prospects of taking up the place offered me at Christ Church, Oxford, the following October. Moreover, it seemed a rather pointless question to pose, as I am sure the commissars would have inspected all baggage anyway, but perhaps they would have doubled my sentence if they had caught me lying to them, as well as smuggling in arms. Yet it showed the absurd protocol-oriented thinking of the security organs: ‘Be sure to ask members of English school groups whether they are smuggling in weapons to assist a Troyskyist insurrection against the glorious motherland’.

At least it was not as naïve as the question that the US customs officer asked me, when I visited that country for the first time about eleven years later: ‘Do you have any intentions to overthrow the government of the United States?’. Did he really expect a straight answer? When H. G. Wells asked his mistress, Moura Budberg, whether she was a spy, she told him very precisely that, whether she was a spy or not, the answer would have to be ‘No’. That’s what spies do: lies and subterfuge. If I really did have plans for subversion in the United States, the first thing I would have done when I eventually immigrated here would be to plant a large Stars and Stripes on my front lawn, and wear one of those little pins that US politicians choose to place in their lapels, in the manner that Guy Burgess always sported his Old Etonian tie, to prove their patriotism. So the answer in Washington, as in Leningrad, was ‘No’. That was, incidentally, what Isaiah Berlin meant when he wrote to his parents in July 1940 that Americans were ‘open, vigorous, 2 x 2 = 4 sort of people, who want yes or no for an answer. No nuances’. These same people who nailed Al Capone for tax evasion, and Alger Hiss for perjury, would have to work to convict Tony Percy for the lesser charge of deceiving a customs official.

H.G. Wells, Maxim Gorky & Moura Budberg

I did not manage to speak to many homines sovietici during my time in the Soviet Union, but I did have one or two furtive meetings with a young man who was obviously dead scared of the KGB, but even keener to acquire nylon shirts and ballpoint pens from me, which I handed over at a night-time assignation in some park in Leningrad. That was clearly very foolish on my part, but it gave me an early indication that, despite the several decades of Leninist, Stalinist, Khruschevian and Brezhnevian indoctrination and oppression, the Communist Experiment had not succeeded in eliminating the free human spirit completely. Moreover, despite the ‘command economy’, the Soviets could not provide its citizens with even basic goods. When the Soviet troops invaded eastern Europe in 1944, among other violations, they cleared the shelves, grabbed watches, and marvelled at flush toilets that worked. As Clive James wrote in his essay on Coco Chanel: “It was the most sordid trick that communism played. Killing people by the millions at least had the merit of a tragic dimension. But making the common people queue endlessly for goods barely worth having was a bad joke.”

Piata-Victoriei Square, Bucharest

My only other direct experience with life behind the Iron Curtain was in Bucharest, in 1980. In an assignment on which I now look back on with some shame, I was chartered with flying to Romania to install a software package that turned out to be for the benefit of the Ministry of Home Affairs, probably for the Securitate. I changed planes in Zürich, and took a TAROM flight (not in an Ilyushin, I think, but in a BAC-111) to reach Ceausescu’s version of a workers’ paradise. The flight crew was surly, for they had surely glimpsed the delights of Zürich once more, but knew that they were trapped in Romania, and had probably been spied upon as they walked round one of the most glittering of the foreign cities. And yet: I had been briefed beforehand to bring in some good whisky and a stack of ‘male magazines’ to please my contacts among the party loyalists. This time, I was able to bypass customs as a VIP: my host escorted me past the lines directly to the car waiting for us, where I was driven to my hotel, and handed over my copies of The Cricketer and Church Times for the enjoyment of the Romanian nomenklatura. I spent the Sunday walking around the city. The population was mostly cowed and nervous: there was a crude attempt to entrap me in the main square. During my project, I was able to watch at close hand the dynamics of the work environment in the Ministry, where the leader (obviously a carefully selected Party apparatchik) was quick to quash any independence of thought, or attempts at humour, in the cadre that he managed. A true homo sovieticus daciensis.

The fantasy that occupied Lenin’s mind was that a new breed of mankind could be created, based on solid proletariat lineage, and communist instruction. The New Man would be obedient, loyal, malleable, unimaginative, unselfish, unthinking. Universal literacy meant universal indoctrination. The assumption was accompanied by the belief that, while such characteristics could be inculcated in captive youth, inherited traits of the ‘bourgeoisie’ would have to be eradicated. The easiest way of achieving that was to kill them off, if they did not escape first. There were almost as many executions in the Red Terror of 1918 as there had been death sentences in Russian courts between 1815 and 1917, as Stephen Kotkin reminds us in Volume 1 of his epic new biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin also recounts the following: “Still, Lenin personally also forced through the deportation in fall 1922 of theologians, linguists, historians, mathematicians, and other intellectuals on two chartered German ships, dubbed the Philosophers’ Steamers. GPU notes on them recorded ‘knows a foreign language,’ ‘uses irony’.” Irony was not an attribute that homo sovieticus could easily deploy. What was going on had nevertheless been clear to some right from the start. In its issue of June 2, 2018, the Spectator magazine reprinted an item from ‘News of the Week’ a century ago, where Lenin and Trotsky were called out as charlatans and despots, and the revolution a cruel sham.

The trouble was that, once all the persons with education or talent had been eliminated or exiled, there were left only hooligans, psychopaths, or clodpolls to run the country. Kotkin again: “A regime created by confiscation had begun to confiscate itself, and never stopped. The authors of Red Moscow, an urban handbook published at the conclusion of the civil war, observed that ‘each revolution has its one unsightly, although transient, trait: the appearance on the stage of all kinds of rogues, deceivers, adventurists, and simple criminals, attaching themselves to power with one kind of criminal goal or another. Their danger to the revolution is colossal.’” This hatred of any intellectual pretensions – and thus presumptions about independent thinking – would lead straight to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, with their execution of persons wearing eyeglasses, as they latter could obviously read, and thus might harbour ideas subversive to agrarian levelling.

Oleg Gordievsky

Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who defected to Britain in 1985, crystallized the issue in his memoir Next Stop Execution. “Until the early 1970s I clung to the hope that the Soviet Union might still reject the Communist yoke and progress to freedom and democracy. Until then I had continued to meet people who had grown up before the revolution or during the 1920s, when the Soviet system was still not omnipotent. They were nice, normal Russians – like some distant relatives of my father who were engineers: not intellectuals or ideologues, but practical, decent people, embodying many of the old Russian engineer characteristics so well described by Solzhenitsyn. But then the last of these types died out, and the nation that emerged was composed purely of Homo sovieticuses: a new type had been created, of inadequate people, lacking initiative or the will to work, formed by Soviet society.” [The author acknowledged the ungrammatical plural form he used.] Thus Gordievsky classified both the common citizenry intimidated into submission and the apparatchiks themselves as homines sovietici. He also pointed out that what he found refreshing in English people generally was their capability for spontaneity, their discretion, their politeness, all qualities that had been practically eliminated in Russia under Communism. He may have been moving in sequestered circles, but the message is clear.

I sometimes reflect on what the life of a Soviet citizen, living perhaps from around 1922 to 1985, must have been like, if he or she survived that long. Growing up among famine and terror, informing against family members, with relatives perhaps disappearing into the Gulag because of the whisperings of a jealous neighbor, or the repeating of a dubious joke against Stalin, witnessing the show-trials and their ghastly verdicts, surviving the Nazi invasion and the horrors of serving in the Soviet armed forces, and then dealing with the long post-war deprivation and propaganda, dying before the curtain was pulled back, and the whole horrible mess was shown to be rotten. Yet some citizens had been taken in: they believed that all the suffering was worthwhile in the cause of Communism. In Secondhand Time, the nobelist Svetlana Alexievich offers searing portraits of such persons, as well as of those few who kept their independence of thought alive. Some beaten down by the oppression, some claiming that those who challenged Stalin were guilty, some merely accepting that it was a society based upon murder, some who willingly made all the sacrifices called for. Perhaps it was a close-run thing: the Communist Experiment, which cast its shadow over all of Eastern Europe after the battle against Fascism was won, almost succeeded in snuffing out the light.

(Incidentally, in connection with this, I recommend Omer Bartov’s searing Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, published this year. Its title is unfortunate, as it is not about genocide. It tells of the citizens of a town in Galicia in the twentieth century, eventually caught between the monsters of Nazism and Communism. It shows how individuals of any background, whether they were Poles, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, or Jews, when provoked by pernicious demagogues or poisonous dogmas, could all behave cruelly to betray or murder people – neighbours – who had formerly been harmless to them. All it took was being taken in by the rants of perceived victimhood and revenge, or believing that they might thus be able to save their own skins for a little longer by denouncing or eliminating someone else.)

I was prompted to write this piece, and dredge out some old memories, by my reading of Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War a few months ago. In many ways, this is an extraordinary book, broad in its compass, and reflecting some deep and insightful research. But I think it is also a very immoral work. It starts off by suggesting, in hoary Leninist terminology, that the battle was between ‘communism’ and ‘capitalism’ – a false contrast, as it was essentially between totalitarianism and liberal, pluralist democracy. (For a fuller discussion of this issue, please read Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.) Westad goes on to suggest that the Cold War’s intensity could have been averted if the West had cooperated with the Soviet Union more – a position that ranks of sheer appeasement, and neglects the lessons of ‘cooperation’ that dramatically failed in World War II. (see  http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/)  But what really inflamed me was the following sentence: “There were of course dissidents to this ameliorated view of the Cold War. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe some people opposed the authoritarian rule of Communist bosses.” On reading that, I felt like hurling the volume from a high window upon the place beneath, being stopped solely by the fact that it was a library book, and that it might also have fallen on one of the peasants tending to the estate, or even damaged the azaleas.

Some people opposed the . . .  rule’? Is that what the Gulag and the Great Terror and the Ukrainian Famine were about, and the samizdat literature of the refuseniks, and the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Yevgenia Ginzburg, and the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many many more? Did these people protest noisily in the streets, and then go home to their private dwellings, resume their work, perhaps writing letters to the editors of progressive magazines about the ‘wicked Tories’ (sorry, I mean ‘Communists’)? How on earth could a respectable academic be so tone-deaf to the sufferings and struggles of the twentieth century? Only if he himself had been indoctrinated and propagandized by the left-wing cant that declares that Stalin was misunderstood, that he had to eliminate real enemies of his revolution, that the problem with Communism was not its goals but its execution, that capitalism is essentially bad, and must be dismantled in the name of Equality, and all that has been gradually built with liberal democracy should be abandoned. Roland Philipps, who recently published a biography of Donald Maclean (‘A Spy Named Orphan’), and who boasts both the diplomat Roger Makins (the last mandarin to see Maclean before he absconded to Moscow) and Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips (who served as an ambulance-driver with the Republicans in Spain) as his grandfathers, asked Wogan, shortly before he died in 1993, where he stood on the durability of Communism. “He said that Stalin had been a disaster for the cause but that the system was still inherently right, would come round again, and next time be successful.” Ah, me. Wogan Phillips, like Donald Maclean, was a classic homo sovieticus to the end.

Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips

As we consider the popularity of such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, it is as if all the horrors of socialism have been forgotten. A few months ago, the New York Times ran a full-page report on the disaster of Venezuela without mentioning the word ‘socialism’ once: it was apparently Chávez’s and Maduro’s ‘populism’ that put them in power. A generation is growing up in China that will not remember Tiananmen Square, and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution will not be found in the history books. Maybe there is an analogy to the fashion that, as a schoolboy, I was given a rosy view of the British Empire, and was not told of the 1943 famine in India, or the post-war atrocities in Kenya. But I soon concluded that imperialism was an expensive, immoral and pointless anachronism, and had no interlocking relationship with liberal democracy, or even capitalism, despite what the Marxists said. This endemic blindness to history is ten times worse.

So why did my generation of teachers not point out the horrors of communism? Was it because they had participated in WWII, and still saw the Soviet Union as a gallant ally against Hitler?  Were they really taken in by the marxisant nonsense that emerged from the Left Bank and the London School of Economics? Or were they simply trying to ratchet down the hostility of the Cold War, out of sympathy for the long-suffering Soviet citizenry? I cannot recall a single mentor of mine who called out the giant prison-camp for what it really was. Not the historians, not the Russian teachers. The latter may have been a bit too enamoured with the culture to make the necessary distinction. Even Ronald Hingley, one of my dons at Oxford, who was banned from ever revisiting the Soviet Union after his criticisms of it, did not encourage debate. I had to sort it out myself, and from reading works like Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Marchenko’s My Testimony, Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind. On the other hand, under the snooker-table in my library rests a complete set of the Purnell History of the Twentieth Century, issued in 96 weekly parts in the 1960s. (Yes, you Billings librarians: soon they too shall be yours.) In part 37, that glittering historian, TV showman, hypocrite and Soviet stooge A. J. P. Taylor wrote: “Lenin was a very great man and even, despite his faults, a very good man.” For a whole generation, perhaps, the rot started here. That’s what we mostly heard in the 1960s. But Lenin was vicious, and terror was his avowed method of domination.

President Putin is now trying to restore Stalin’s reputation, as a generation that witnessed the horrors of his dictatorship is now disappearing. So is Putin then a homo sovieticus? Well, I’d say ‘No’. Maybe he was once, but he is more a secret policeman who enjoys power. The appellation should be used more to describe those cowed and indoctrinated by the regime rather than those who command it. Putin’s restoration of Stalin is more a call to national pride than a desire to re-implement the totalitarian state. Communism is over in Russia: mostly they accept that the Great Experiment failed, and they don’t want to try it again. More like state capitalism on Chinese lines, with similar tight media and information control, but with less entrepreneurialism. As several observers have noted, Putin is more of a fascist now than a communist, and fascism is not an international movement. Maybe there was a chance for the West to reach out (‘cooperate’!) after the fall of communism, but the extension of NATO to the Baltic States was what probably pushed Putin over the edge. The Crimea and Ukraine have different histories from those in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and I would doubt whether Putin has designs on re-invading what Kotkin calls Russia’s ‘limitrophe’ again. He is happier selectively cosying up to individual nations of Europe, especially to those countries (e.g. Poland, Hungary, and now maybe Italy and Austria, and even Turkey) whose current leaders express sympathy for his type of nationalism, while trying to undermine the structure of the European Union itself, and the NATO alliance.

So whom to fear now – outside Islamoterrorism? Maybe homo europaensis? I suspect that the affection that many Remainers have for the European Union is the fact that it is a softer version of the Socialist State, taking care of us all, trying to achieve ‘stability’ by paying lip-service to global capitalism while trying to rein it in at the same time, and handing out other people’s money to good causes. And it is that same unresponsive and self-regarding bureaucracy that antagonizes the Brexiteers, infuriated at losing democratic control to a body that really does not allow any contrariness in its hallways. (Where is the Opposition Party in Brussels?) I did not vote in the Referendum, but, if I had known then of all the legal complexities, I might have voted ‘Remain’, and fought for reform from inside. But my instincts were for ‘Leave’. If the European Project means tighter integration, political and economic, then the UK would do best to get out as soon as possible, a conclusion other countries may come to. The more oppressive and inflexible the European Union’s demands are (to discourage any other defectors), the more vigorously should the UK push against its increasing stranglehold. That does not mean goodbye to Goethe and Verdi, or those comforting ’cultural exchanges’, but it does require a bold stance on trade agreements, and limitations on migration of labour. We should beware of all high-faluting political projects that are experimental, and which remove the responsibility of politicians to their local constituents, as real human beings will be used (and maybe destroyed) in the process. A journalist in the New York Times wrote a few weeks ago that he was ‘passionate’ about the European Union. That is a dangerous sign: never become passionate over mega-political institutions. No Communist Experiment. No New Deal. No Great Society. No European Project. (And, of course, no Third Reich or Cultural Revolution.) Better simply to embrace the glorious muddle that is liberal democracy, and continue to try to make it work. Clive James again: “It is now part of the definition of a modern liberal democracy that it is under constant satirical attack from within. Unless this fact is seen as a virtue, however, liberal democracy is bound to be left looking weak vis-à-vis any totalitarian impulse.”  (I wish I had been aware of that quotation earlier: I would have used it as one of the headliners to Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.)

I close with a riposte to A. J. P. Taylor, extracted from one of the great books of the twentieth century, The Stretchford Chronicles, a selection of the best pieces from Michael Wharton’s Peter Simple columns in the Daily Telegraph, from 1955 to 1980. These pieces are magnificent, daft, absurd, hilarious, and even prescient, where Life can be seen to imitate Art, as Wharton dismantles all the clichéd cant of the times, and anticipates many of the self-appointed spokespersons of loony causes and champions of exaggerated entitlement and victimisation who followed in the decades to come. Occasionally he is simply serious, in an old-fashioned way, as (for example) where he takes down the unflinching leftist Professor G. D. H. Cole, who in 1956 was trying to rally the comrades by reminding them that ‘while much has been done badly in the Soviet Union, the Soviet worker enjoys in most matters an immensely enlarged freedom’, adding that ‘to throw away Socialism because it can be “perverted” to serve totalitarian ends is to throw out the baby with the dirty bath-water’. Writes Wharton:

“This is familiar and most manifest nonsense. What has gone ‘amiss’ in Socialist countries is no mere chance disfigurement, like a false moustache scrawled by a madman on a masterpiece. It is Socialism itself, taken to its logical conclusion.

The death of freedom, the enslavement of the masses, the withering of art and culture, the restless, ruthless hunt for scapegoats, the aggressive folie de grandeur of Socialist dictators – these are no mere ‘perversions’ of Socialism. They are Socialism unperverted, an integral and predictable part of any truly Socialist system.

We are not faced here with so much dirty bath-water surrounding a perfectly healthy, wholesome Socialist baby. The dirty bathwater is Socialism, and the baby was drowned in it at birth.”

New Commonplace entries can be found here.

1 Comment

Filed under Economics/Business, Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Literature/Academia, Personal, Politics, Travel

Struggles at the Desktop

Monitoring the home security system at 3835 Members Club Boulevard

[Warning: This article may not be suitable for readers of a sensitive disposition. It describes encounters with information technology that may be disturbing to some.]

“Nowadays if there is an error in the input program the computer not only detects it but gives the approximate description and location of the error and recommends procedure for correction.” (Gerald S. Hawkins, in Stonehenge Decoded, 1965)

When IBM hired me as a trainee Systems Engineer in 1969, it was not because of my data processing skills. That day in late August, when I walked into the Katherine Street office in Croydon, Surrey (shortly before the branch moved into the new building on Cherry Orchard Road), I did not know the difference between a punched-card and a paper-clip. It was not a classical career beginning, and not a carefully-planned strategic move. In an indecisive third year at Oxford, I had applied to take the Certificate of Education after the completion of my degree in Modern Languages, but soon began to have doubts. On a weeklong visit to a local primary school in Purley, Surrey, before the first term started, I had innocently queried the headmaster as to why the classes did not appear to be learning multiplication tables by rote. “Oh, Mr Percy!”, he replied with a condescending smile. ‘We don’t do tables any more!” For this was the era of ‘child-centred’ learning, where every infant had to discover for him- or her-self that 7 x 8 resulted in 56, and so on. I recall the way that tables and mental arithmetic were drilled into my generation about fifteen years earlier, and how the pattern of number combinations has stayed with me ever since. In 1968, however, I was entering the world of Progressive Education.

Perhaps my aspirations were also checked by my term of teaching-practice. Having had a term of almost total inactivity, owing to my being on crutches because of a rugby injury, I was informed, in December 1968, that I was urgently needed as a replacement at Bognor Regis * Comprehensive School, as the previous teacher of Russian had been fired for getting one of his pupils pregnant. I did not learn the cause of the summons until I arrived: the school was also going through a painful merger of a grammar-school with a secondary modern, which also dampened what remained of my enthusiasm. Halfway through this term, I decided that a quick return to the classroom was perhaps not the most life-enhancing prospect to be contemplated. Taking advice from some outfit that suggested that my interest in chess, bridge, crosswords and logic puzzles might open up some doors in the computing industry, I secured interviews with some manufacturers, of which NCR and IBM were the most satisfactory. I took care to complete my Certificate of Education so that I could have a back-up career lest the corridors of business found my talents wanting.

[* Bognor Regis is a coastal town in West Sussex. It gained its regal addendum after King George V recuperated there, and the monarch’s dying words have been apocryphally reported as ‘Bugger Bognor!’. When Ursula Kuczynski (agent SONIA) needed a place for her children to stay while she returned to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1938, she left them with a friend in Felpham, which is part of Bognor. There is no truth to the rumour that I was in 1969 undertaking, under deep cover, some early sleuthing into Sonia’s contacts.]

Unfortunately, IBM was a little slow to snap up the opportunity to make me an offer, so I had to write to them to explain to them that this entrepreneurial youth was thirsting to make his contribution to the computing revolution. Perhaps the company was waiting for such a show of initiative, since I was rewarded with an appointment at the Head Office in Chiswick, to meet one of their Personnel Managers (no ‘Human Resources’ in those days: employees were certainly not ‘associates’, and customers were assuredly not ‘guests’). I was delighted to find that this benevolent soul had also studied Russian at Oxford. He started to quote me a quatrain of Pushkin’s, which I was happily able to complete. I passed the interview. I was in.

Before I started the eight-week basic training course at Sudbury, Middlesex, I had a week in the office, where I was directed to a small room, and given a Programmed Instruction text on IBM’s System/360 to work through. These matters were all rather daunting to me, and I recall I had to interrupt my study to ask the Systems Engineering Manager what the meaning of some concept was. It all comes back to me quite clearly: I wanted to know what was special about the sixteen ‘registers’ of any 360 computer system. Registers were (and no doubt still are) the mechanism by which the locations of computer memory were addressed, but they also seemed to have some properties that lent themselves to high-speed arithmetic. Somewhat confused, I asked the manager whether he could explain their nature to me. “Oh, I never really understood all that stuff”, he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.” I think we adjourned to the squash court soon after that, and I gave him a good runaround in return.

The Systems Engineering class was tough. All new recruits were required to go through the same basic training, to make sure they were immersed into the IBM way of doing things. I recall a few students who had already served several years with IBM’s rival, ICL, and were thus already very familiar with the concepts and practice of data processing. Most of the graduates straight from university had scientific backgrounds, and had used computers in their laboratory work. There were times when I wondered whether I would make it. My ability to learn seemed to correlate exactly with the ability of the individual instructor to present topics in schemas that matched how my brain was able to integrate new ideas, namely very logically, with clear step-by-step evolution, and no grand jumps that left canyons of unexplored territory behind. Gradually, things began to make sense. I completed the three stages of the training about a year later, and was ready to roll.

Unfortunately, IBM was not sure at that time exactly what the role of systems engineers was, as anti-trust threats had meant that the company could not hand out systems engineering resources to its customers for free. At the same time, we were neophytes eager to learn by practical experience, while the projects we were given were haphazard, not always suitable, and not always educational. I soon learned that I liked coding, appreciated the value of well-designed and well-implemented systems, and became very frustrated with poorly written documentation. And I did have a knack for working out what was at fault when things went wrong, although that experience was marred by a disastrous project where I was asked to make some changes to a Vehicle Scheduling Package for a prominent and demanding customer. There was no guide to how the product worked, and I stumbled for weeks in trying to tweak it to meet the idiosyncratic needs of the customer. I received no help: the project was simply abandoned, I believe. But two lessons started to emerge in my mind: i) the knowledge that there was a logical explanation for every computer failure, and ii) the importance of good diagnostics being built into any product.

I move forward seven or eight years, and two jobs later. I was working as European Customer Service Manager for a small American software company. Our flagship product was known as a transaction-processing monitor, an adjunct to the operating system that handled communications with a network of terminals and managed the user programs that the customer wrote to provide on-line business functions. One of the challenges with this software configuration was that a motley set of technologies all operated in one partition, all clamoring for resources, and all potentially stepping on each other. Much of the code was written in low-level Assembler language, which provided greater manipulative power, and faster execution speeds, but also provided opportunities for corrupting storage occupied by other software. Frequent were the ‘core dumps’ (we still called them such, even though ferrite cores had been superseded as memory components by then) that were mailed in by customers when the system blew up, and we were unable to detect what had happened over the telephone. Then the support team would compare the state of computer memory with source listings of our product, in order to find out where our product (it was frequently the fault of the product) had gone wrong.

One particularly stubborn problem endures in my memory. A prestigious customer had experienced an execution failure, not recreatable, that caused the partition to explode. (The customer was actually the institution where the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, for whom Sonia had acted as courier in 1942-43, was working when he confessed in January 1950: there is no truth in the rumour that I was sent in by MI5, under subterfuge, to undertake an audit of its security procedures.) The requisite hundreds of sheets of print-out were sent in. No one could work out what had happened, and I devoted hours and hours to it. Eventually, I determined that it looked as if an error routine in IBM’s telecommunications package, VTAM, had failed to save properly the register contents that had been passed to it (and which had to be restored when the routine had completed its work), as all processes used those same registers I had been puzzled about back in 1969. I called the customer with my tentative suggestion, and asked him to pursue the matter with IBM. The next day he called back: indeed, one of the error handlers was incorrectly saving and restoring registers. He apologized for not searching for, and applying, the fix that would remedy the problem. Much goodwill was gained.

The second experience that reinforced my earlier lesson was in helping to roll out a new feature in the product, something called ‘Multiple Record Hold’ (MRH). The previous version had allowed only one file record to be held at a time, which was a heavy constraint. If a user application wanted to prevent anyone else accessing a customer record, say, while it then checked an inventory record that it might want to deplete, the systems designer was in a bind. MRH addressed that problem. But our developers designed and coded the feature too quickly and carelessly. Several occasions would arise where the programmer would try to invoke the feature inappropriately (for example, invalid keys, or multiple requests to the same file), or the software detected something illogical. It would return an ‘L’ code to the program, indicating such. But the programmer had no idea what it meant. There must have been several dozen places in the source code where an ‘L’ error code was returned. We, as support personnel, had to trace through the record of programmatic requests, and the source code listed, to detect at what point in the logic the ‘L’ had been returned, and then provide an explanation. But it could all have been made so simple: an auxiliary area existed where a return code could have been posted, and a corresponding piece of documentation could have explained what every code meant, with an enormous benefit in productivity. I was just about to start coding this enhancement when I was invited to work as Director of Technical Services for the parent company in Norwalk, Connecticut. At that time the flagship product was on the way out: the feature was never implemented. And so my wife and I, with ten-month-old son, moved to the USA.

[In parenthesis, for the more technical among my readership, I should also mention here that an unusual feature of this product was that the Control Program was written in a high-level language, COBOL, a decision presumably made in the interests of clarity and maintainability, not in the cause of performance. But when some advanced features were added to the product, it became necessary for the CP [not the Communist Party] to access low-level bitstrings, something COBOL cannot do. Thus an Assembler (low-level) language subroutine called GETBITS was added, to return statuses for further decision-taking and logic-branching. I recall very clearly how one of our most demanding – and shrewdest – customers in the UK, when undergoing performance problems, ascertained, through the use of a testing device, that GETBITS was consuming 6% of all machine cycles on its 370/145 – an enormous amount. Furthermore, when I inspected the new CP code, I discovered that, in many circumstances, the GETBITS routine was being invoked, but the CP was then taking branches that were completely independent of the results of the call! When I vaguely suggested to the President of the Company (who had probably written much of the original code himself) that I could rewrite the whole CP in Assembler language on my weekends, and deliver a much faster system to our customers, he declared, very seriously, that anyone who attempted that would be fired. He still relocated me to report to him in Connecticut, but later gracelessly told me that he only did so because the Director of R & D persuaded him. On such whims do whole lives change.]

The reason for this long introduction is that I recently had to replace my home PC, and experienced massive problems. For some months, my old HP Pavilion had been warning me of its imminent demise. The fan had broken, and the device was presumably in danger of overheating. I would get a warning message each time I re-booted, and occasionally Windows would blow up. So shortly before Christmas, I bought an HP Envy Desktop, preparing to install it after my winter break. I did not buy a printer or monitor: I had an HP Photosmart printer that was working well, and, only a year ago, I had had to replace the monitor that had suddenly died on me with a new model. This new monitor had HDMI support, but, since my PC was so old, it did not support an HDMI connection, and I thus had to use the older-generation VGA connector. This apparently meant that I had no sound support on my computer, but that was no great loss, even though I could not listen to music while I was working. I got used to it. Early in January, I thus loaded up the printer with new ink cartridges, backed up the files on the old PC, checked the cable configurations to ensure I knew what socket went in where, and unpacked the new machine.

To start with, all went very smoothly. True, Windows10 was a bit of a shock, with some features apparently dropped, and some weird patterns of activity occurring, such as random duplication of keyboard strokes. But overall it worked, and I restored my files (well, partially: but that’s another story.) Then I suddenly realised that I was not getting any sound from the computer, despite the new HDMI connection. The driver was okay, the system told me that the graphics was working properly, and yet no sound emanated from the monitor. It took me a while to work out that, all that long year ago, I had been sold a monitor with no sound support. Well, it was my fault for not asking, I suppose, but I think the salesperson was at fault, as well. Maybe he just wanted to move that product off the shelf. After all, why would I want to move from an antiquated broken monitor that supported sound to a spiffy new one that didn’t? There’s a lesson.

Next, I tried the printer. And here is where the problems started. Word documents would not print at all; PDFs would print, but very faintly. Crossword grids from the Web printed out partially. Emails from my queue printed fine, however. (I have one to prove it, as it relates to my problems.) What was going on with my device, which had been working so well a day beforehand? What caused such erratic behavior, where some items came out fine, but others were ignored? I did not believe it was a dirty printhead problem (something I had encountered and fixed a couple of years ago). My first step was, on my next trip into Wilmington (thirty-five miles away) to go to Best Buy, the store where I had bought both the printer and the PC, and ask for their advice. They immediately said ‘buy a new printer’, hinting that many users suffered from the same or similar experiences, as it would be too expensive to investigate the problem, and printers were so cheap. But I wasn’t going to give up that quickly.

After looking on the Web for users with similar complaints, I tried a number of things. I reloaded the printer driver (the current version was dated October 2015, which was perhaps not encouraging). I deleted the device, and added it back in. I reset it. I set it up as a default printer. I tried printing test pages. At some stage I logged on to the Microsoft and HP support forums, where ‘experts’ (but not employees of the respective companies) would generously offer suggestions to fix the problem. Nothing worked. Eventually, an HP employee joined the forum, and tried to help me. I shan’t go through all the steps he recommended, but he ended up giving me secret codes to enter on the printer itself, to determine why it wasn’t able to operate any off-line functions either. But even this process did not work as he outlined, as it was interrupted by another message. At this stage, we agreed that I should call up HP customer support.

Since the problem appeared to be with my newly warranted PC, I called the number for desktop computers, and was soon speaking to a support representative (in India), to whom I gave all the relevant information. Then, when I described my problem, he said that I needed to speak to the Ink-jet support group, and gave me another number to call. I went through the same process, was given a case-number, and started providing details of my problem. But when I gave the representative the Serial ID of my printer, she (in the US, this time) told me that I would have to pay for support, as the device was no longer under warranty. This did not completely surprise me – I have paid for such telephone support from HP beforehand – but I was not actually in the mood, given the trials I had already experienced, for having to pay for diagnosis that I really felt was HP’s responsibility. I somehow convinced her that she should at least provide an initial investigation of the problem for free. So we downloaded some software that allowed her to control my computer while I watched.

What happened next was rather disturbing. The representative asked me what make of router I was using, and when I responded ‘Ubee’, she expressed a degree of shock, almost one of recognition, as if the Ubee-Photosmart combination was a known toxic one. I tried to determine whether that was the case, but received no reply, as she started manipulating the Ubee tables on my PC. Clearly, she knows what she is doing, I said to myself. And then the connections were lost. First, the phone contact disappeared. She sent me a message indicating such, so I quickly sent her a text, imploring her to call me back. Then that connection went dead, too, and I was left stranded, with the shape of my router tables unknown, and the problem unresolved.

At least I had a case number. I called back, but this time was routed to another call-centre in India. Even though I gave the representative there the case-number, and told him what had happened, he claimed he could do nothing for me. I rung off in exasperation, hoping that the contact in the USA would call me back. But nothing happened. I suspect that the supervisor of the representative trying to help me in the USA had interrupted the process, probably reprimanding the young lady for not charging me for such support time, and thus had broken off all contact. I shall never know. Even when an HP customer relations person (who had presumably kept an eye on the forum, and had been alerted by the HP technician who joined it) contacted me afterwards, he was powerless to find out what had been going on. But to abandon a customer half-way through a process when the device was under the control of a remote technician was scandalous, in my unhumble opinion.

So I gave up, and bought a new printer, from Epson. Never again any HP products for me.

Perhaps it was all a strange coincidence, but one afterthought came to me. If my printer had enough intelligence in it that, when I ran out of ink, and inserted new cartridges, it could send a message in real-time to HP Central to encourage me to buy a replacement set, maybe it was also smart enough to detect that it was now being driven by a more modern, faster computer, and that a process akin to what we systems engineers used to call ‘graceful degradation’ should occur, so that the user would have to buy a new printer? That was the immediate recommendation of the technician at the company who sold me the printer, remember. After all, Apple has admitted slowing down its devices to preserve battery power, and Volkswagen fudged emissions when engines detected that they were running under laboratory tests. I would not be at all surprised if something like that happened.

And then my wife’s laptop computer started having problems. She would be told that an important Security update needed to be installed on Windows10, after which the process would hog her computer for hours on end, only to fail with the message ‘0x800700c1‘, when it was 99% complete. We ignored it for a while, since I was mightily consumed with sorting out my own PC, but I at last got round to investigating. ‘Contact Microsoft Support’ was the guidance, so I went on-line, and was soon directed to a document titled “You receive the error message ‘Something went wrong’, when attempting to install the latest version of Windows10.” I was amazed to learn that the company offered ‘many steps that I could try’, as there were ‘many possible reasons your device may be unable to update to the latest version of Windows’. This was extraordinary. A specific error message had been issued, yet the software had no clue as to what circumstances had cause it to fail, and the user of a consumer product was supposed to experiment with all these approaches in order to resolve the problem? What on earth would the Little Old Lady from Dubuque do?

I decided to request an on-line chat with a support person. This did not take long, and I was put in touch with Parthiban, in India. We set up the protocol by which such persons take over control of the computer, and he soon decided that the problem was due to a corrupt database, and a conflict with Norton Security. He initiated the update again, but he had to sign off before the process completed, leaving me with a link that I could invoke in case of failure. I was given a case-number, and waited for an hour or so. And then the installation failed again. So the next day, I used the reinvocation, and was before long involved in another on-line chat, with Deepthi. Now Deepthi did not appear to know what he (or she) was doing, as I could watch him wandering aimlessly around HP configuration options. My mistrust was justified, as he suddenly signed off the session without letting me know why.

Accordingly, the next day, I reinvoked the link, and noticed that I was 93rd in line, so decided to try again later. The queue had then diminished to 21, so I tried it again, and was soon engaged in an on-line exchange with Praveen. His diagnosis was that some cookies needed to be removed, and Norton Security had to be disabled for a while, as it was inhibiting the execution of the Microsoft Update routines. So I watched as he cheerfully went through the whole process leading up to the installation of the updates. Then he left me to watch for an hour, until the update failed again.

Yet, when I tried to re-invoke the link to resume my interchange, I was told that it was no longer valid. This time, I resolved to speak to a real person, called the support number, and, after a wait of about fifteen minutes, I described my problem to the support representative. She took my number, and soon I was talking to another agent, named Tony. (By asking him what time it was where he was working, I determined that he must be located somewhere in the Mid-West.) Anyway, while he seemed to be unable to look up my Call Number, and discover what approaches had already been applied, Tony sounded much more confident, and judged that I needed a larger partition size to run the routines. So I watched as he downloaded the Minitool Partition Wizard (how come Microsoft does not supply this facility?), which ran for about half an hour. That task having been successfully completed, he said he was going to re-install the whole of Windows10, so that I would not have to deal with a separate Security Update. I was getting a bit anxious as this process started, so I begged him to stay on-line until it completed, indicating that he could multitask with other customers while the update continued. Yet he was so confident that his solution would work, he said we should ring off: he did however commit to calling me in another hour to check how things were going.

Predictably, the update failed. After about an hour and a half of installation, verification, preparation and execution, I received a short message, with no diagnostic code: ‘Windows installation has failed’. And this saga would not be complete unless I informed you that, no, Agent 4 (Tony) never called me back, despite his promise. I had been abandoned again.

Before finally agreeing to give up completely, and simply to ignore the messages emanating from Microsoft that were constantly bugging my wife, as she worked at her computer, informing her that her security was at risk, and that updates still needed to be installed, I decide to post a plaintive appeal on the Microsoft Support Forum. I summarized all that had occurred, and expressed my frustration at Microsoft’s shoddy installation software, and its even more unprofessional support agents, who appeared to apply guesswork in trying to resolve problems, and repeatedly left consumers like me hanging dry. My appeal was quickly picked up by a Microsoft employee who has been very patient in going through my experiences. Yet his final recommendation, after I gave him the status of my Windows10 System Build, and maintenance applied, sounded very much like the process that Agent 4 had undertaken. When I pointed this out, he urged me to try what was (he said) a very simple process: indeed, he himself had written the on-line document that guided it. So I sat down, went through his steps, disabling Norton Security and trying again when that package told me that one of Microsoft’s modules was unsafe, and had had to be removed. About ninety minutes later, the Microsoft software, having gone through download, installation, verification, and preparation, started its execution. After half an hour, I received exactly the same message that had appeared in the previous try: ‘Windows installation has failed’.

The Forum Observer responded promptly, requesting that I send him (via OneDrive) a couple of log files from an obscure Windows folder. I am not sure why no one had thought of inspecting such data before (I had in fact suggested such a course of action several days earlier, as I suspected such files should exist somewhere). I had not used OneDrive (Microsoft’s file-sharing service on the Cloud) before, but I retrieved the logs, followed the instructions from my iPad, created the OneDrive link, and posted it on the Forum page.

And then I received the following amazing message from the moderator:

“A Windows upgrade requires DISM utility to work and in your case DISM fails which then triggers a rollback.

Error initializing DISM Session: [0x800700c1], [gle=0 x800700c1]

Right-click Start>Command Prompt (admin) and type in:

DISM /ONLINE/ CLEANUP-IMAGE/ SCANHEALTH

If that fails with 193 post back the DISM log present at C:\Windows\Logs\DISM\ again through Onedrive”

As John McEnroe would say: ‘You cannot be serious!” And don’t you just hate it when your DISM fails? So I went ahead, and yes, the SCANHEALTH failed with a 193, and I posted on the forum the link to the DISM log on OneDrive. Isn’t this exciting?

The next news was not good. My contact thought that the damage ‘was beyond repair, and that I would either have to reset Windows or do a clean install. He pointed me to another link, where a Mr Carmack had published a document titled ‘Clean Install Windows 10”. Mr Carmack attempted to sell the process by describing it as ‘a game-changing learning experience that will make you permanently the master of my PC’, going on to write that ‘to stretch this out over days or weeks you’ll learn better how each change affects performance.’ But typical home users of PCs do not have ambitions of becoming geeks, taking up Windows maintenance as a hobby. The only game I wanted changed was the one of getting Microsoft to fix its software. The steps that Mr Carmack outlined are monstrous (see https://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/forum/windows_10-windows_install/clean-install-windows-10/1c426bdf-79b1-4d42-be93-17378d93e587), and must be very prone to error. And, even if I went through all this, what were the chances the problem would recur? I replied in this vein, thanking the moderator again, suggesting it was perhaps time to give up. ‘So what are the implications of simply ignoring the attempts by Windows to install the Security updates? Maybe the laptop should simply be replaced?’, I asked.

There is an easier way, replied the moderator. He outlined some other steps, recommending that I do a reset, ‘as it might remove the corrupt driver which is preventing the upgrade’.  He had no idea what might have caused the problem, and suggested yet another site ‘where the experts might be able to help you better’. But, if a driver has been identified as defective, I wondered, why could it not be replaced? At this stage, I concluded that I had had enough. My wife and I would live with whatever nonsense Microsoft imposed on us, and replace the laptop with something from Apple when the time came.

It was difficult for me to imagine that my wife’s PC was the only one on the planet undergoing such experiences. She is a woman in a million, I know, but I do not understand how her rarity should extend to the tribulations on her laptop computer. And the exercise also reminded me how little way the software industry (or Microsoft, at any rate) has come in fifty years. The company delivers an upgrade to a system that is in many ways incompatible with the previous versions, and it has disabled certain functions. The on-line documentation frequently does not match how the screens of system information appear, so one is left groping. The diagnostic codes given when the software encounters problems are meaningless and obscure. One can find jokey tutorials on YouTube, but they are badly designed, often delivered in mumbles, and do not explain enough about the Whys of a particular feature. The support personnel who try to help the bewildered consumer are poorly trained, not provided with proper tools, and thus engage in guesswork. And, of course, we fogies have to deal with tracking down those tiny labels with product serial numbers, pasted in the most inaccessible places on the equipment, that have to be read with a magnifying-glass.

What galls me even more is that we (in the USA, anyway) are currently facing a bombardment of in-your-face advertising from Microsoft that promotes its new expertise in Artificial Intelligence as ‘Empowering Imagination’. It depresses me to think how such technology will be abused by a company so obviously inept at managing the release and maintenance of its own software. Perhaps the techniques of neural networks should be applied to Microsoft’s own configuration and diagnostic problems before they are imposed upon an unsuspecting world? Yet again, we have been here beforehand. I recall the surge of enthusiasm about AI about thirty years ago, when all number of hyperbolic claims were made about the advent of rule-based systems. Now we hear it again, with all sort of nonsense about systems that will be able to teach themselves how to be more effective, and thus achieve all manner of breakthroughs in medical diagnosis, or fraud detection, or whatever. Computers can be programmed to give results that appear to reflect intelligence, such as beating grandmasters at chess, but that does not mean that they are inherently intelligent.

Maybe this generation of AI is different, but a caveat remains. A key principle of computing science has been the verifiability of systems – the fact that code must be inspected to determine whether the logic has been implemented according to specifications. (If proper specifications actually exist, of course, which is a whole other problem: see Multiple Record Hold.) Thus I used to experience the process of ‘structured walk-throughs’, where one’s peers would wade laboriously through the code a colleague had written to apply more stringent tests that might escape the test data environment. If the onus of decision-making has now been delegated to the computing system itself, who now takes responsibility when something goes wrong? I was both amused and perturbed to read, in the New York Times, earlier this month, how engineers at Google have started analyzing how computers using neural networks reach the conclusions they do, as if the experts are concerned about the level of auditability that these systems provide. “Understanding how these systems work will become more important as they make decisions, like who gets a job and how a self-driving car responds to emergencies”, the article declared. (I write this the day after the Uber self-driving car in Tempe killed a pedestrian during a test-run.) Their concerns are appropriate: I smell litigation over unexplained, and inexplicable, disasters. The paradox is that, if the processes of AI are verifiable, the technology is considered mundane and unimaginative, while, if they are not, it is uncontrollable and dangerous.  What do you think, HAL?

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

A few years ago, the Times of London informed me it could no longer issue a cheque for the occasional fees for published Listener crossword puzzles without my submitting a complex form that confirmed that I was a proper US-resident tax-payer. The cost to complete the forms required was almost as much as the crossword fee, so I didn’t bother. Last year, my bank in the UK (with whom I have had an account since 1965) told me that I would have to change my deposit account into a long-term instrument that would mature in three years, as it was no longer allowed to pay interest on accounts to overseas customers. This month, I received a letter from Barclaycard (with whom I have had a sterling credit card for about forty years) advising me that my account would have to be closed in early April unless I could provide proof of a residential address in the United Kingdom. Thus another convenience (for paying magazine subscriptions, downloading files from the National Archives, purchasing gifts, even ordering a copy of my own book from amazon to send to a reviewer – all in sterling) disappears. I have maintained my UK citizenship, have paid all tax at source, as appropriate, and have always declared all my (puny) UK-based income to the US Internal Revenue Service. It is comforting to know that the British authorities are cracking down on the real risks to currency and tax fraud, and thus discouraging me from any further investments or expenditure in the UK, while allowing all that other soiled money from Russia and other places to be brought into London for the purposes of acquiring valuable assets and helping the economy.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

1 Comment

Filed under Personal, Technology

Misdefending The Realm

 

“Which are we, Carruthers – workers, peasants or intellectuals?”

‘Misdefending the Realm’ was published by the University of Buckingham Press on October 26, and is available in the UK, as they say, ‘at all good booksellers’. But in case there are no booksellers at all left in your area, you can see it listed at amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=misdefending+the+realm ). It will be published in the USA next spring.  I have prepared a page dedicated to coverage of the book at  ‘Misdefending the Realm’  .

Here follows the blurb:

“When, early in 1940, an important Soviet defector provided hints to Britain’s Intelligence about spies within the country’s institutions, MI5’s report was intercepted by a Soviet agent in the Home Office. She alerted her sometime lover, Isaiah Berlin, and Berlin’s friend, Guy Burgess, whereupon the pair initiated a rapid counter-attack. Burgess contrived a mission for the two of them to visit the Soviet Union, which was then an ally of Nazi Germany, in order to alert his bosses of the threat, and protect the infamous ‘Cambridge Spies’. The story of this extraordinary escapade, hitherto ignored by the historians, lies at the heart of a thorough and scholarly exposé of MI5’s constitutional inability to resist communist infiltration of Britain’s corridors of power, and its later attempt to cover up its negligence.

Guy Burgess’s involvement in intelligence during WWII has been conveniently airbrushed out of existence in the official histories, and the activities of his collaborator, Isaiah Berlin, disclosed in the latter’s Letters, have been strangely ignored by historians. Yet Burgess, fortified by the generous view of Marxism emanating from Oxbridge, contrived to effect a change in culture in MI5, whereby the established expert in communist counter-espionage was sidelined, and Burgess’s cronies were recruited into the Security Service itself. Using the threat of a Nazi Fifth Column as a diversion, Burgess succeeded in minimising the communist threat, and placing Red sympathizers elsewhere in government.

The outcome of this strategy was far-reaching. When the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler’s troops in June 1941, Churchill declared his support for Stalin in defeating the Nazi aggressor. But British policy-makers had all too quickly forgotten that the Communists would still be an enduring threat when the war was won, and appeasement of Hitler was quickly replaced by an appeasement of Stalin. Moreover, an indulgence towards communist scientists meant that the atom secrets shared by the US and the UK were betrayed. When this espionage was detected, MI5’s officers engaged in an extensive cover-up to conceal their misdeeds.

Exploiting recently declassified material and a broad range of historical and biographical sources, Antony Percy reveals that MI5 showed an embarrassing lack of leadership, discipline, and tradecraft in its mission of ‘Defending the Realm’.”

One day I might write a blog about the process of seeing a project like this come to fruition, but now is not the time. Instead I wanted to introduce readers to a sample of the cartoons that I selected to illustrate the period under the book’s microscope, that between the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941. (The sketch I selected for the frontispiece appears above.)

Ever since I first set eyes on Osbert Lancaster’s precise illustrations of architectural patterns, accompanied by their witty and ironic commentaries, I have been an enthusiast of the cartoonist and architectural critic. In another universe, I might have claimed that his influence propelled me into a career in theatrical design, but, alas (though at no great loss for the world of drama), all it did was to confirm me as a perpetual fan of his work. My father had acquired a few of Lancaster’s volumes, and I particularly recall how, before the age of ten, I pored over Homes, Sweet Homes & From Pillar to Post (combined later in one volume as Here, of All Places, with additions describing American structures), as well as There’ll Always be a Drayneflete, with their precise draughtsmanship, all too-human and familiar caricatures of citizens in history, and their satirical, but not malicious, commentaries. (Of course I was too young at the time to appreciate the texts.) The books displayed a sense of the unique continuity of habitation on the British Isles – unique, because of the lack of invasion over the centuries  ̶  which brought history alive for me.  The first date that a schoolboy in the 1950s would learn was 1066, and I can recall as a child regretting that I would not be around to enjoy the millennium of that occasion. There must have been something about the durability of certain things among monumental change that captured my imagination, and a strong aspect of that element can be found in Misdefending the Realm.

Lancaster wrote some entertaining memoirs as well (All Done From Memory and With an Eye to the Future), which are liberally sprinkled with his drawings. For those readers unfamiliar with him, you can also read about him in his Wikipedia entry at (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osbert_Lancaster). One fact I recently learned is that his second wife, Anne Scott-James (with whom he collaborated on the equally delightful Pleasure Garden), was the mother of the historian Max Hastings, whose books on WWII I have especially enjoyed. (I have read The Secret War, Retribution, and Armageddon this year. Hastings sadly did not have a good relationship with his mother, who died aged 96 only a few years ago.) As for Osbert, to gain a sense of the man, readers may want to listen to his second Desert Island Discs interview, by Roy Plomley (see https://player.fm/series/desert-island-discs-archive-1976-1980-44534/sir-osbert-lancaster). The subject’s understated but very patrician demeanour, and his aristocratic pronunciation of such words as ‘Alas’, suggest that the whole performance could have been a parody executed by Peter Sellers or Peter Cook.

‘Which are we, Carruthers . . .?’ is one of Lancaster’s most famous pocket cartoons. Lancaster was responsible for the success of the genre of ‘pocket cartoon’ after convincing his art editor at the Daily Express to publish such in the newspaper, as part of Tom Driberg’s column, early in 1939. The feature ran for the best part of forty years, interrupted primarily by Lancaster’s commitments abroad. Thus he provided a very topical commentary on many of the events that occurred in the time that interested me. As I declare when introducing Lancaster’s cartoons among other illustrations (I also use several Punch cartoons from the same period): “He skillfully lampooned authority figures during World War II, but never maliciously, and his insights into the ironies and absurdities with which the war was sometimes engaged brought entertaining relief to persons in all walks of life.”

I love this particular cartoon, which appeared in the Daily Express on July 18th, 1941, at the end of the period on which my study concentrates, because it suggests so much in such simple lines. Who are these blimpish and aristocratic characters, no doubt enjoying a tiffin in their London club? They have presumably been told that the Russians are now our allies, and that they had better acquaint themselves with the principles of Marxism, and learn more about the workers’ paradise over which Stalin prevails. It all appears to be something of a shock to the system for these two gentlemen, yet their confusion underlies the nonsense of the Marxist dialectic.

‘Carruthers’ is a poignant name, as it appears most famously in Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands, where Carruthers is a Foreign Office member who goes sleuthing over German skulduggery in the Baltic Sea before the First World War. Ever since then, the name ‘Carruthers’ has epitomised that doughty and loyal comrade that any intrepid wayfarer would want to be accompanied by, as in the way that Times obituaries used, not so very long ago, to describe such men: ‘someone you would want to go tiger-shooting with’. Yet this Carruthers does not look like a tiger-shooter, or even an SIS spy. He looks more Wodehousian, perhaps a rather dim-witted younger son of an earl, and his territory is probably more Lord’s and Ascot, with a trip to the grouse-moors in August, than the coasts of the Baltic.

These two are supremely ‘superfluous men’, as Turgenev might have identified them, although they probably lack the artistic talent that was characteristic of the Russian novelist’s grouping. Lancaster’s caption wryly suggests that these fellows are not intellectuals. The pair of clubmen might well have been encountered in Boodle’s, or the Beefsteak, perhaps, of which club Lancaster himself was a member.  Lenin and Stalin would certainly have considered them parasites, ‘former people’, and they would have been on the list as members of the class enemy to be exterminated as soon as possible, as indeed such people were treated in Poland and the Baltic States. They are clearly bemused by the radical division of the world found in Life in the U.S.S.R. Yet their simple question drives at the heart of simplistic class-based Marxian analysis.

That same Marxism, which grabbed so many intelligent persons’ fascination at this time – something that endures seventy-five years later, despite all its nonsense  ̶  should surely by then have been shown as bankrupt. In my book, I describe how much damage the young Isaiah Berlin caused in his effervescent biography of Karl Marx, which gave an utter and undeserved respectability to the studying of Marxism, while gaining the eager approbation of such as Freddie Ayer and Guy Burgess. By 1940, it should have been obvious that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was a cruel nightmare, with Stalin, as a power-mad ex-peasant, ruling over a prison-camp more horrible than anything Hitler had yet prepared. Yet even MI5 fell victim to the appeal of ‘intellectual Marxism’. When the German general von Paulus was captured at Stalingrad, his interrogators tried to impress upon him the doctrines of the new world of communism. “You should know that Germany’s workers and peasants are among the most prominent supporters of Hitler”, he replied. Even Churchill hailed the Soviet Union as a ‘peace-loving nation’ in June 1941, and Roosevelt was to fall even more sharply under the delusion that Stalin was a man of peace.

What was different about Britain was that buffers like these two were tolerated. Even if they were on the way out, there was no reason that they should have to be eliminated through a bloody slaughter. Lenin is said to have abandoned hope of a revolution in Britain when he read about strikers playing soccer with policemen: class war would never reach the destructive depths into which it sank in Russia after the Communist takeover. And that is one of the points in my book: that liberal democracy in the Britain of the 1930s was certainly flawed, with the aristocrats in control, and position of power excluded from those without the proper background or standing. It did not have enough confidence in its structure and institutions to resist Fascism resolutely, and the Communists took advantage of that fact to propagandise the British, and cause the monstrosities of Stalin’s penal colonies, famines, purges and executions to be overlooked. Stalin ended up enjoying a massive intelligence superiority over the British and the Americans at Yalta. Yet the UK was eventually able to evolve into the more democratic and more fair country of Attlee’s administration, the days of imperialism were clearly over, and the realm was still worth defending.

For the endpaper of the book, I used the following cartoon, published just after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 23rd, 1941. That is all the caption says.

It reminds me so much of a famous photograph of a gathering of communists during the Spanish Civil War, dated February 5, 1937. Could this not have been a caricature drawn by Lancaster?

 

Here we see the ice-cold demeanour of the French apparatchik, Maurice Thorez, the flamboyancy of the street bully in the leather-jacket, Antonio Mije, and the pious gaze skywards in the beatific pose of Francisco Antón (who eerily looks rather like the young Osbert Lancaster). They epitomise all the ghastly aspects of the Soviet totalitarian machine, the efficiency, the cruelty, and the self-righteousness. ‘What an absolute shower!’, as Terry-Thomas might have called them. Thus I can see this set piece as a tableau vivant by Lancaster himself, akin to his famous sketch of John Betjeman and others performing the madrigal ‘Sumer is icumen in’.

 

“A musical evening laid on for the Uffington Women’s Institute by Penelope Betjeman. At the piano: Lord Berners; back row: Adrian Bishop, Karen Lancaster and Osbert on the flute, Penelope, seated, playing ‘a strange instrument resembling a zither’; standing at the front, Maurice Bowra and John Betjeman.” [source: Cartoons and Coronets]

In my book, I use a total of ten of Lancaster’s cartoons, each one representing the theme of a single chapter, or pair of chapters. I gained copyright permission from the Daily Express owners, yet strangely the institution could not offer me images of the originals themselves, even in its fee-based archive on the Web. Nor is the Lancaster Archive of any use. I relied on my own collection of cartoon books. For readers who may be interested in pursuing this historical side-alley more extensively, they may want to investigate the following.

The richest guide to the work of Lancaster is probably Cartoons and Coronets, introduced and selected by James Knox, and designed to coincide with the exhibition of the artist’s work at the Wallace Collection, 2008-2009. The Essential Osbert Lancaster, a 1998 compilation, selected and introduced by Edward Lucie-Smith, contains an excellent introduction to Lancaster’s life and offers a rich representation of his graphic and literary work. Lancaster provided an illuminating foreword to his 1961 compilation of pocket cartoons, from 1939 to that year, titled Signs of the Times, which offers a solid selection of his wartime sketches. The Penguin Osbert Lancaster (1964) is a thinner and unannotated selection, including excerpts from Homes, Sweet Homes and From Pillar to Post. Earlier, Penguin also offered a fine glimpse into his wartime work in Osbert Lancaster Cartoons (1945).

And then there are the (mainly) yearly selections, all of which (apart from the very rare first 1940 publication) I have in my possession. They are worth inspecting for Lancaster’s Forewords alone. Many of the captions appear very laboured now (compared, say with Marc Boxer’s Stringalongs), and the references are often recondite, but the cartoons still represent a fascinating social commentary. Here they are:

Pocket Cartoons (1940)

New Pocket Cartoons (1941)

Further Pocket Cartoons (1942)

More Pocket Cartoons (1943)

Assorted Sizes (1944)

More and More Productions (1948)

A Pocketful of Cartoons (1949)

Lady Littlehampton and Friends (1952)

Studies from the Life (1954)

Tableaux Vivants (1955)

Private Views (1956)

The Year of the Comet (1957)

Etudes (1958)

Mixed Notices (1963)

Graffiti (1964)

A Few Quick Tricks (1965)

Fasten Your Safety Belts (1966)

Temporary Diversions (1968)

Recorded Live (1970)

Meaningful Confrontation (1971)

Theatre in the Flat (1972)

Liquid Assets (1975)

The Social Contract (1977)

Ominous Cracks (1979)

My book also contains a few cartoons from Punch, likewise culled from my ‘Pick of Punch’ albums from the years 1940 to 1942. (Permission for use was also gained from the copyright-holder.) But, if you want to see any more, you will have to buy the book. You will also be treated to three Affinity Charts, which show the complex relationships that existed between various groups when war broke out, as well as a Biographical Index of almost three hundred persons who feature in the work. Enjoy!

The regular set of new Commonplace entries appears here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Literature/Academia, Media, Personal, Politics

Web Woes

Last January, I received an email purporting to come from my bank. It looked legitimate: it had a clean logo, in the right colours, but it contained a predictable spelling mistake, and did not originate from a valid bank email address. Yet I was concerned how the sender had obtained the fact that I was a customer of the bank, and gained possession of my email address. Had there been a serious security breach? Having occasionally received spoof emails from other institutions, which I forwarded to the address they gave for reporting such, and subsequently received grateful acknowledgments, I did the same with this one. I looked up the address to which such suspected spoofs should be sent (abuse@  . .  .) , and waited for a response.

And waited. And waited. I lingered a couple of days, and then sent another message to that address, inquiring whether the mailbox was being monitored, and requesting a reply. There was still no response, or even an acknowledgment. That was depressing, and utterly unsatisfactory. I thus went to the website again, trying to find a manager responsible for email fraud. The website was singularly unhelpful: it did not allow any chatroom discussion of security topics, and I entered a hopeless loop of going back to being invited to send further emails to the given ‘abuse’ email address. The bank provided no lists of executives to contact, no bank head office address to write to, only a couple of telephone numbers, neither of which looked suitable for my problem.

I tried one of the numbers, and after going through security checks, I spoke to someone (in Ohio or Iowa, I believe). She could not help me, but agreed to forward me to someone who could. I was thus transferred to a number in Atlanta, where I again introduced myself and my problem, and went through security checks. That person also decided that he was not in the office that could help me, but knew which section was responsible, and transferred me to another number.

I waited about twenty minutes before someone accepted my call. I again described my problem, and went through the same security checks. I was then told that that office was responsible for ATM security, but not for possible spoofing breaches. When I described my frustration to her, she said that she did not know what the policy was, but it was maybe unrealistic of me to expect any response from the Abuse department. I replied that these days it was very easy to set up an automated email reply system that would at least confirm that a customer’s message had been received, and indicate what kind of action was being taken, and added that it seemed to me that the Bank did not look as if it took reports of spoofing attacks, and possible security breaches, very seriously. She assured me that that was not so, and agreed to track down the Abuse Department. I was then left hanging on the telephone for another five minutes.

When she returned, she gave me the name and address of a ‘Resolutions Services and Support’ office, but no telephone number, no name of an executive responsible, and could not explain why that was not so. When I asked her what I should do next if I sent a letter to that office, and received no reply, she encouraged me to write ‘Response Required’, to ensure that I did receive a reply. This I did. But I was not hopeful.

Fifteen years ago, when the Web started to become a useful communications mechanism, corporate websites were full of data about organisation, functions, executives, addresses, telephone numbers, etc. Nowadays, it seems that their prime purpose is to provide a blatant marketing presence, and to make it extremely difficult for the inquiring customer (or prospective customer) to identify a department or person he or she might wish to contact. In addition, we have the blitz of customised advertisements: I cannot bring up the BBC website to check the cricket scores, or surf to a news site to ascertain Kim Kardashian’s views on this year’s Man Booker Prize nominations, without waiting for half a minute while dopey high-resolution advertisements for car dealerships half an hour away, that I am never going to visit, are loaded. Somebody, somewhere, is paying for all this, and will one day work out that it is all a waste.

After composing a letter, and sending it to the address given, I had one last try at finding a real person’s telephone number. Eventually I found one, in the Public Relations department. I called it, and left a message describing my problem (it was a Saturday), thinking I had done all I could. And then, out of the blue, a couple of hours later, I received a very polite telephone call from a Bank employee, who said that he was the Executive in charge of Security. His friend in the PR department had picked up my message, and alerted him to it.

As we discussed my problem, Mr. Watkins (not his real name) apologised, but said that, owing to the vast amount of spear-phishing emails that the Bank received these days, it had decided not to acknowledge any messages received from its customers, as it only encouraged more traffic that could overwhelm the system, and he started to brief me on the security challenges that any bank of its size has to counter in 2017. I responded that that might be so, but in that case why did the Bank simply not include some text to indicate that it inspected every genuine message that came through to its hotline, but that it would probably not respond individually to every item? Would that not provide for a better management of customer expectations?

At this stage, Mr. Watkins started to give me another little lesson about technology, at which point I decided to explain my credentials. While I am no longer au fait with all the issues to do with website maintenance and data security, I was one of the two executives who launched the Gartner Group’s Security product back in 1999. When I described my background, Mr. Watkins became even more amenable, and we moved on to a new plane. He seemed very proud of the fact that the Bank spends millions and millions of dollars each year on security. He essentially agreed with my recommendations, gave me his telephone number, and encouraged me to stay in touch while he investigated the problem.

Over the next few weeks, Mr Watkins was jauntily positive. There had been meetings, attended by database administrators, web designers, lawyers, security experts, public relations people – even manicurists, for all I know. It was important that everyone had buy-in to this significant portal of the bank’s business, and every detail had to be examined. And then, early in March, he proudly told me that the new functions had been implemented.

But they hadn’t. There are two entries to the bank system – a public one, and a subsequent secure sign-on that leads to a private area where customers can maintain their accounts. The Bank had attempted to fix the public ‘help’ area, where they had incorporated the text I suggested (although they made an egregious spelling mistake in doing so, spelling ‘fraudulently’ as ‘frauduleny’), but they had not touched the private zone. When I pointed this out to Mr Watkins, he was incredulous, and eventually I had to send him screenshots to prove that those spaces existed. I gently pointed out to him that it was as if the Bank’s executives had never tried to log on to their system as retail customers. He was suitably chastened, and promised to get back to me. More meetings with lawyers and psychotherapists, no doubt.

Nothing happened for a while. I continued to perform my on-line banking, and regularly checked the ‘Help’ section of the secure banking site to see whether it had been fixed. On March 20, Mr Watkins wrote to me as follows: “I’m writing as a brief status update to let you know that the changes you’ve identified below are scheduled to be implemented within the next 2 – 3 weeks.  In addition, I’ve had our team perform a comprehensive review of all of our web pages to ensure as much consistency as possible.  I will update you again once the necessary changes are complete.”

I waited again. No update from Mr Watkins, so six weeks later, on May 2, I emailed him again, pointing out that the unqualified advice still sat there, unimproved, in the private area, but did confirm that the rubric in what was called the Security Center was now clean and (reasonably) correct. (It had new spelling problems: ‘out’ for ‘our’, but no matter  . . .) I gave him the url of the offending area. Because of some personal issues, he had to hand my message over to his personal assistant to work on. He was under the impression he had already informed me about the changes the Bank had made.

I had to start again with Christine (not her real name). After she sent me an email informing me that the changes had been made, and how I should report suspicious emails, I had to explain to her that there was a discrepancy between the two zones, and I informed her of the fresh spelling problem. “Thank you for the feedback,” she replied. “We are currently working with our teams to review and will keep you posted.” More teams, more confusion. Less chance of a correct fix. I remembered Charles Wang of Computer Associates, who said once that, when a programming project started to drag, he would take a person off the team, so that it would run faster.

Another few weeks passed by. On May 25, I emailed Christine, and copied in Mr. Watkins, asking where things stood, only to receive the following reply from Mr Watkins. “I’ve tasked the multiple teams involved in producing and delivering these web pages to pull together a broad effort to reconcile all content.  These teams are currently researching what this will involve and we plan to meet back with them to discuss their assessments during the week of June 12. Please rest assured that there are no idle hands involved in this work but given the significant size and complexity of this effort, I’m focused on a) updating any current pages while b) ensuring the proper controls are in place to ensure ongoing alignment and consistency.”

Well, ‘resting’ I probably was, but ‘assured’ did not exactly describe my composure. I waited again. And then, on June 21, I learned from Christine that a new executive had been brought in to ‘address the issue going forward’ (as opposed to ‘going backward’, I suppose). I was invited to join a conference call, so that my concerns could be addressed. I declined, however. I did not need a conference call, and I instead carefully pointed out again that, while the problem had been fixed in the Privacy and Security Center, the text had not been incorporated in the private area, for which I provided the link again. All that Christine did was to provide me with instructions on how I should use the Bank’s web-page to report problems (as if it were not supposed to be self-explanatory by now).

I took one final stab at explaining the problem, pointing out how badly designed the whole website was, with its circular paths and inconsistent terminology, and I provided an explicit analysis of the problems with the Bank’s customer interface. I expressed my amazement that Bank officers could not identify the anomalies in the system, and fix them. I copied the message to Mr. Watkins.

On July 1, a new communicant appeared – probably not the executive brought in by Mr Watkins, as he introduced himself as being ‘on the team that oversees the on-line banking platform’. Arthur (again, not his real name) kindly provided me with a long explanation of all the changes that the Bank was introducing, including not just my recommendations, but many other improvements, as well. I thanked him, and promised to keep my eye open.

Well, it is now July 25, as I write, and the same old text appears under ‘Report Fraud’ in the private banking section, with no indication that messages will not be acknowledged. A simple change that I could have implemented on my own website in under five minutes (literally) still baffles the combined expertise of the Bank after seven months. Is this a record? Banks complain that they are stifled by regulation, but if they cannot even manage changes of this magnitude off their own bat, what hope is there for them? Is this story not an example of corporate incompetence and internal bureaucracy gone mad?

*                   *                  *                      *                      *                      *

The second incident concerns a recruitment at my old Oxford college, Christ Church (an institution, I hasten to add, for the benefit of my American readers, that is not actually the equivalent of Oral Roberts University, despite its name). The Hilary Term issue of the college magazine proudly announced that Christ Church was welcoming Sir Tim Berners-Lee as a Research Student and member of the Governing Body, with a mission to ‘grow Computer Science at Christ Church’. For those readers who might not know about Sir Tim’s remarkable achievements, I point you to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee. He is known as the ‘inventor’ of the World Wide Web, and director of the World Wide Web Consortium, and took his degree at Queen’s College, Oxford. As a retired information technologist, I admire and applaud his achievements.

Yet some things that Sir Tim wrote in this promotional piece in Christ Church Matters puzzled and disturbed me. He characterised ‘several connected initiatives’ in which he has been involved for some time as Open Data, Open Standards, and Human Rights on Web. As an expert in data management for some decades (I was a data and database administrator in the 1970s, have experienced several generations of data-base management systems, was the lead analyst and product director for Strategic Data Management at the Gartner Group for a decade, and successfully forecast how the market would evolve), I believe I understand fairly well the issues regarding data security and data sharing. I found Sir Tim’s pronouncements about Open Data naïve and erroneous, and his thoughts on the role of Open Standards confusing, and maybe misplaced. But what really provoked me was what he wrote about Human Rights on the Web. “We have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity”, he wrote, adding, somewhat rhetorically, about the concerns of the Foundation: “Is it [the Web] open, non-discriminatory, private and available to all, including minorities and women? Is it a propagating medium for truth and understanding, or more so for untruth and discord? Can these parameters be changed?”

Now I regard such questions as reasonably interesting, although I’m not sure what ‘minorities’ he was referring to (philatelists? Zoroastrians?), or why ‘women’ should come at the end of his list of concerns. But how could computer science be sensitive to such transitory social labels, or the gender of its users? Quite simply, what he proposes is either outside the realm of computer science, or lacking any toehold in what computer science has already generated about issues of data management (for instance, in the works of Sir Tim’s outstanding forbear, Edgar Codd, another Oxford man, an alumnus of Exeter College, and also a winner of the Turing Award). I found his pronouncements about serving humanity simply arrogant and pompous. Accordingly, early last March, I wrote a letter to the editor of Christ Church Matters, and to the Dean (whom I met last year, as my blog reported), which ran as follows:

“Am I the only reader of Christ Church Matters to be somewhat surprised, even alarmed, at the expressed rationale behind the new computer science initiative? The achievements of Sir Tim Berners-Lee are spectacular, and I have no doubt his intentions are honourable, but do the goals that he espouses not tread on the space of social advocacy, even corporate mission, rather than scientific investigation?

For example, the notions of ‘web-based data’, ‘Open Data’ and that ‘we [= who?] have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity’ are certainly controversial. Data are not exclusively managed by web applications, but frequently shared. Indeed, it is a principle of good database design (a topic frequently overlooked in university computer science courses) that data be implemented for potential shared use, irrespective of delivery vehicle. There is thus no such entity as ‘Web-based data’. Professor Wooldridge’s statement that ‘when Governments generate data, there is huge potential value of that data is made freely available and open for all to use’ provokes enormous questions of privacy and security. To assume (as does Sir Tim) that ‘we’ can be confident enough to know how ‘all of humanity can be served’ has a dangerously utopian ring to it. Etc., etc.

The point is that technology is neutral: it can be used for good, or for ill, effect, and people will even disagree what those two outcomes mean. How is ‘all of humanity’ served when Islamic fanaticists can exploit web-based encrypted information-sharing applications to exchange plans for terror? Who benefits when private medical data is presumably made available for ‘all to use’? When is data private and when open? It is all very well for Sir Tim to assert that that his main motivation is ‘the personal empowerment of people and groups’ (is that phrase not both tautological and self-contradictory?), but that is a belief derived from his own sense of mission, not from a perspective of scientific inquiry.

Maybe these matters have already been discussed, and have been resolved. If so, I think it would be desirable to have them explained publicly. I believe those helping to fund such initiatives should be made aware that the boundary between science and evangelism appears to have shifted considerably.”

My letter was kindly acknowledged by the Dean, with a promise of follow-up, but I have heard nothing more. I suspect that I am seen as a minor irritant, getting in the way of some serious boosting of the college reputation, or maybe hindering access to vital government funding. But the question remains. There are researchers into computer science, and there are commercial enterprises. They frequently enjoy a symbiotic relationship, but there comes a time when enterprise have to make risks and decisions that go beyond what consortia and standards-groups can achieve. Ironically, Sir Tim’s statements about benefitting humanity sound uncannily like those of Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, who also has evangelical designs on improving the world. But the rest of us should be very wary of anybody who claims that omniscience to know how ‘humanity’ is best served, and who appears to be unaware of the Law of Unintended Consequences. And computer scientists should not start dabbling in evangelism.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

Regular readers of this website will recall my reference to The Trinity Six, by Charles Cumming, in my March blog. Since then, I have read his first Thomas Kell novel, A Foreign Country, and this month, the follow-up A Colder War (published in 2014), both of which I recommend. (Although I do not understand why we need to know every time Thomas Kell lights up a cigarette, or that he throws the butt of one into the Bosporus.) But my point here is to describe how unmistakably set in time these thrillers are – not so much by the political climate, although Iranian nuclear secrets and rebellious Turkish journalists give one a sense of that  ̶  but more by the use of technology. For the narrative is densely imbued with BlackBerries, iPhones, Facebook, TripAdvisor, SIM cards, SMS and O2 services  ̶  but not the dark Web, Snapchat or Twitter (or even Sir Tim’s Open Data initiative). Will it make the book soon seem dreadfully outdated, or will it be praised for its verisimilitude?

The pivot of the plot is indeed one such technological matter. (Spoiler Alert.) In what appeared to me as a very obvious mistake by the hero, an unencrypted text message leads to the eventual betrayal. And one other passage caught my eye  ̶  for a different reason. Cumming writes, about a surveillance operation at Harrod’s: “While most of the members of the team were using earpieces and concealed microphones, Amos had been given an antediluvian Nokia of the sort favored by grandparents and lonely widowers. Kell had banked on the phone giving plausible cover.”

I recognized that scene. Three or four years ago, I went into a branch of my bank to pay in a cheque (it may have been a check). The cheerful spirit behind the counter asked me whether I knew that I could pay in checks via my cell-phone (or mobile, as it would be known in the UK). Without saying a word, I then solemnly produced my venerated Motorola C155, manufactured ca. 2005, reliable, rugged, and not very handsome, and showed it to the woman. She then let out an enormous giggle, as if to draw the attention of her co-workers to this antediluvian instrument. As can be seen, it looks more like the shoebox phone from Get Smart (the 1960 TV series, not the 2008 movie).

But it did its job – just made and received phonecalls. My carrier forced me to replace it a couple of years ago, but, my fingers are too stubby for the keypad on the new thin model, and I never use my phone to access the Web. Enough woes in that. I miss my C155  ̶  ‘as favored by grandparents’.

*                            *                      *                      *                      *

Another saga started. In May, I had received a letter from History Today, inviting me to renew my subscription on-line. “Renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier”, it boasted.   I thus logged on to its website, but was frustrated in my attempts. I sent an email to the publisher, listing my failures. I explained that the system did not recognise that I was in the USA, did not allow me to enter my subscription reference, and quoted a sterling fee rather than the $99 mentioned in the letter. And when I signed on to my account, it gave me no option to renew, just to upgrade to access to the archive.  I received a prompt reply, which merely stated that the website had been going through some maintenance, but that once this were completed, I should be able to renew my subscription on-line.

I held off for a while, and then received another letter in the mail, which again proclaimed that ‘renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier’. It offered a price of $79, which I interpreted as a special offer, maybe making amends for the earlier technical problems. I thus logged on afresh, and made the renewal, but did notice that the confirmation came through with a charge against my US dollar credit card for £99. An obvious mistake, no doubt to be cleared up simply. I sent an email pointing out the error. After a couple of days, I had received no response apart from an email confirming my renewal, and encouraging me to contact the sender (the third name in as many messages) if I had any problems. I thus sent off another email, pointing out the discrepancy between the amount specified in the invitation letter, and somewhat impatiently requested a credit to be made against my credit card.

Yet another name replied, with the following message: “Thank you for your recent email.
I can confirm the reason they are different amounts and different currency is because it has been converted from USD to Pounds. So it will always show what we have received as payment here is England rather than the amount you paid is Dollars. If there is anything else that I can help you with please don’t hesitate to contact me.”

So, as the month wound down, I sent another message, pointing out that a fee of $79 would convert to £61, not £99. I am awaiting their reply. It is possible, I suppose, that they mistakenly took the exchange rate as 1.31 pounds to the dollar, rather than vice versa, although the letter lists the optimal online archive upgrade as a more accurate £30/$45. We shall see. If e-business speeds are predictable, I shall probably be able to provide an update to this transaction in January 2018.

The next episode of Sonia’s Radio will appear at the end of August. This month’s new Commonplace entries appear here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Literature/Academia, Media, Personal, Technology

POLARBEAR Has Landed

The main purpose of my visit to the U.K. this month was to attend the degree ceremony at the University of Buckingham and to receive formally my doctoral award. As many readers will recall (wake up at the back, there!), my thesis covered the subversion of MI5 by communist agents and influences at the beginning of WW II. A symptom of this institutional failure was the later indulgence shown to the Soviet spy Leo Long after he was caught red-handed passing military secrets from MI14 in 1943, my claim being that this ‘Sixth Man’ may have been even more dangerous than the pentad of Cambridge graduates that has gained practically all the publicity. (The latest issue of Christ Church Matters, the alumni magazine of my Oxford college, contains an article about my research, titled ‘The Moscow Plot’, and it can be viewed here.) Followers of my subsequent research on ‘Sonia’s Radio’ may also have noticed that I have hinted at the remote possibility that the 1956 death of Alexander Foote may have been faked by MI5 (with the connivance of SIS) to prevent his assassination by Soviet military intelligence. The relevance of these two items will become clear by the end of this blog entry.

On the first evening of my trip, after I had arrived early in the morning at the Battersea residence of my brother, Michael, and his wife, Susanna (who has courageously and gratifyingly recovered from her cancer treatment), Michael and I went to the Instituto Cervantes  near the Strand to attend an interview with Professor Sebastian Balfour, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics. Professor Balfour and Michael had become friends when they were both in hospital, and the Professor had very kindly ensured that Michael received special attention when he was in dire straits. I had met the Professor and his wife, Grainne, at Michael’s house on my previous visit, and was eager to learn what the Professor had to say about Spanish matters in the last century, and later even, right up to the secession attempts now being made by Catalonia. What with Philby’s association with Franco, Spender’s mission on behalf of the Comintern, Foote’s action with the International Brigades, as well as the whole sorry story of the Soviet-directed elimination of the anarchists, and the orchestration of the stealing of Spain’s gold by Orlov on Stalin’s behalf, the events of the Spanish Civil War were very relevant to my research area.

Professor Balfour offered us some excellent insights, skillfully weaving the experiences of Spain in the twentieth century into the fabric of today’s cultural and ideological dynamics. Moreover, at the party after the event, I was pleased to meet Mark Ezra and his wife, who were neighbours of the Professor. Mark turned out to be a film-producer, and I was happy to take his address as a possible contact for arranging a deal for the script (based on the central event of my thesis) that my friend and colleague Grant Eustace has been trying to place. Moreover, in one of those strange coincidences that tend to aggregate as one gets older, I discovered later that Mr Ezra had attended Ampleforth College, and had been educated both by Susanna’s father (Haughton) as well as by her first (deceased) husband (Dammann).

After the Spanish event, Michael and I took a taxi to Chelsea, where Susanna was winding down a dinner with four long-standing friends, all outstandingly bright professional women, and wonderful company.

Nicola, Nemeen, Mo, Janie & Susanna

The conversation was lively, and one of the friends (Mo, who is a psychotherapist) decided to issue nicknames to us all. I was given the cryptonym POLARBEAR, (surely in ignorance of my austere reputation as COLDSPUR), which prompted me to respond that my times must be numbered, as the beast ran the risk of soon becoming extinct. This was a highly enjoyable and lively end to the day, which had started by seeing me deplane at Heathrow at what was in fact 3 am in Southport, North Carolina (already on summer time), and which closed by my collapsing into bed at midnight local time.

I had arranged to meet Grant Eustace for lunch in Victoria the following day (Friday 10th), and was able to pass him the lead. Grant and I exchanged sympathies over the struggles with making headway in the worlds of publishing and the media, but maybe something will become of this opportunity. In any case, Grant is always working on some stimulating project, and I enjoy learning about his new ventures. On Saturday morning, I had to catch a train to Newcastle, in the North of England, since I was attending, as my more impulsive alter ego of HOTSPUR, the annual Listener Crossword Setters’ Dinner in Gateshead. I had not attended this event for ten years, but the opportunity was too great to pass up, even though I was a bit embarrassed by the mistake in my centennial Alan Turing puzzle of five years ago. I need not have worried: I was not booed on arrival. It was an excellent occasion, where I re-encountered some old friends, and established new ones. The pseudonyms of the setters often resemble the cryptonyms of agents working for Soviet Intelligence: thus my friend Ian Simpson (who was one of my testers) bears the same sobriquet (HOMER) as the Cambridge Spy Donald Maclean. The photo below shows Ian sitting next to Richard Heald, a renowned solver. THIRD MAN (Richard England, not Kim Philby), who holds the current record of most consecutive Listener puzzles correctly solved (103, I believe, and still active), was supposed to be in the photo, but he, who remembered me as a fellow London Society Rugby Football referee, somehow was recorded only in a short video-clip. (‘Third men’ customarily prefer being airbrushed out of history.) I was honoured to be sitting next to SHACKLETON (John Guiver), who won the prize for the best puzzle of 2016. This event is a very British affair, and a great institution, populated by smart, inventive and congenial people, who love words, and crosswords, and all the cultural trappings that accompany the Listener puzzle. But 2017 will probably be my last dinner.

Ian Simpson & Richard Heald

The Elusive Third Man (Richard England) (video not yet displayable)

Hotspur & John Guiver

I took the return train to London the following morning, arriving back in Battersea in mid-afternoon. That evening I was fortunate enough to meet the philosopher John Hyman, Professor in Aesthetics at the University of Oxford, who is also a friend of Michael’s and Susanna’s, and had been invited to dinner. John had expressed interest in my thesis since he knew Isaiah Berlin (indeed he had once been on a bus with him, and thus considered Isaiah and himself ‘fellow-travellers’) and asked me several penetrating questions. I was happy to discuss the implications of Berlin’s friendship with such as Guy Burgess, Lord Rothschild, and, most of all, Jenifer and Herbert Hart, since Jenifer had been Berlin’s lover, and Herbert had been a most important influence on jurisprudential philosophy, being acknowledged several times in Hyman’s recent Action, Knowledge and Will, a volume I might perhaps not have picked up otherwise. I prepared for the occasion by reading the most relevant chapters on the train from Gateshead, but (perhaps fortunately) we ran out of time before I could be questioned on the arguments. (I regret I am a bit slow on these matters: I am still trying to come to grips with ‘Freddie’ Ayer’s 1936 Language, Truth and Logic.) But again, a most enjoyable evening.

Monday saw me meeting my old friend David Earl, who picked me up at East Croydon Station, whence we repaired to a pub for lunch and caught up with each other’s news. David has always shown a solicitous interest in my research, and asked me again whether I had been ‘tapped on the shoulder’ over my subversive line of inquiry. I suggested to him that it might be a bit late for that, and that any such warnings would now only aid publicity for my forthcoming book. Later that afternoon, I went to Whitgift School, where I was able to see two long-standing friends, Tia Afghan, the Head Librarian, and Bill Wood, the Archivist, before preparing to attend the AGM and Annual Dinner of the Old Whitgiftian Golf Society, a group I had joined on a previous visit to the U.K.  Some of the gentlemen attending I had never met before, a few I had played golf with, but I was delighted to see again some old colleagues from the rugby and cricket fields, such as Mike Wilkinson, Paul Champness, Alan Cowing, Howard Morton, and Jeremy Stanyard. It was another highly enjoyable evening: golf is thriving at the School, and while the Headmaster chose the occasion to give a rather supererogatory motivational speech, it did not detract from the sense of fellowship. Howard Morton kindly drove me home to Battersea.

Messrs. Stanyard, Wilkinson & Champness (centre)

Peter Abel (left) et alii

Work followed on Tuesday. I went to the National Archives at Kew, where I had to wait to get my Reader’s ticket renewed, and then hung around while my requested files were retrieved. My goal that day was to dig around in the records of the Radio Security Service to discover what attempts had been made to intercept unfamiliar and unauthorised radio traffic either being received or transmitted within the UK’s shores in the 1940s. I also managed to inspect the missing volume of the files on the Rote Kapelle: for some reason, the third volume of biographical information on RK members and affiliates had not been digitised, and thus I had been unable to download it from my home in Southport. When I brought this oversight to the attention of the Kew authorities a few weeks ago, they could not explain it, and committed to rectify the problem, but were in no rush to do so, especially as I was about to visit the Archives. I discovered several nuggets, some that addressed enigmas, some that provoked new ones.

The next day saw Michael, Susannna and me driving to Oxford, where we were scheduled to be shown round the exhibition on Volcanoes at the new Weston Library of the Bodleian by its lead curator, David Pyle, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University. This visit had been arranged by another coincidence: I have been a Friend of the Bodleian for some years, and when I met Jessica Brown of the Development Office last summer, I had happened to mention that my wife Sylvia had been born in St. Vincent. A few weeks later, astutely recalling the connection, Jessica contacted me about the Volcanoes plans, saying that the eruptions of La Soufrière on the island constituted an important part of the coming exhibition, and would I be interested in it? I was able to inform her that Sylvia and I had trekked up to the top of the mountain in the autumn of 1978, whereupon our guide – who had never seen smoke emanating from the base  ̶  wanted immediately to dash back down the mountain for fear it were about to erupt again. Moreover, I was able to extract from my files a report on the adventure that I had written back in May 1979, after the major eruption that occurred on Easter Friday. (See here.) The long and short of it was that I agreed to help fund a video and audio display about the Caribbean volcanoes in the transept space at the exhibition, and the personal attention of the kind and expert volcanologist, Professor Pyle, was our reward. The exhibition contained a remarkable set of accounts, illustrations, and maps from the Bodleian Libraries, as well some items borrowed from outside. I heartily recommend a tour: the exhibition closes on May 21.

La Soufrière at the Bodleian

Michael, Susanna & I on the roof of the Weston Library

We then moved on to Christ Church, my alma mater, where I had arranged a visit to the Library. Dr Cristina Neagu, who is keeper of the Special Collections, was able to show us a rich and assorted set of documents, from commentaries by Maimonides to recently discovered notebooks and publications by Lewis Carroll, as well as the remarkable Graz camera that is contributing to an exciting digitisation project at the Bodleian. The wealth of the Special Collections is extraordinary, and is being made more broadly available through the interpretation of scholars, and the efforts of Cristina and her team, supported by innovative digitisation techniques. This was another very fascinating experience, and we returned to our hotel at Peartree Road well stimulated, ready for some excellent refreshment and dinner at the Trout at Godstow.

No relaxation! The next day (Thursday), Susanna was seeing a friend in Oxford, so Michael drove us to Bletchley to spend a day at Bletchley Park, the wartime home of the Government Code and Cipher School (renamed Government Communications Headquarters at some stage during the war). While I knew a fair amount about GC&CS from my reading (especially about the analysis of ENIGMA traffic), I had never visited the place itself. For me, much of the inspection of the various huts was less than overwhelming, but the experience was enhanced by a brief tour of Bletchley Park House itself (in which the office of its chief, Alastair Denniston, stood), and capped by a remarkable exhibition in Block B, where a moving account of Alan Turing’s life and tragic end was given, as well as a crisp and articulate demonstration of a reconstructed ‘Bombe’ at work. An ENIGMA message was decrypted with the help of a ‘crib’ that relied on the fact that no letter could ever be encoded as itself, the multiple wheels rotating until a trial set of complete matches was made. The (volunteer) demonstrators performed a superlative job: one of them told us that her father had worked at Bletchley Park during the war, and then, after learning Russian, had moved on to manage English Accessions at the Bodleian. But the exhibition was also a little coy about the controversies that still surround wartime security and management. For example, in the Visitor Centre, three plaques show Stewart Menzies (head of SIS, to whom GC&CS reported), Alastair Denniston (who led GC&CS from 1921 to 1942), and Edward Travis (director from 1942 to 1952). Menzies is graced with his ‘Sir’, but with no dates. Denniston and Travis are both given their years of birth and death, but no titles, although Travis was given his knighthood a few months after his appointment, while Denniston was shamefully never given one. Maybe embarrassment over this snub still lingers.

Susanna took the bus from Oxford to Buckingham to join us on Thursday evening, where we were staying in preparation for the degree ceremony on Friday. Friday turned out to be the coldest day of my stay: I had to pick up my cap and gown in good time before setting off for a meeting with Christopher Woodhead, the editor at Buckingham University Press. We had not met in person, so it was good to discuss across the table plans for the book based on my thesis  ̶  indexing, illustrations, cover, launch. We appear to be on target for a September publication. And then   ̶  off to the Church of St Peter and St Paul for the secular Convocation for the Conferment of Degrees. This was a very well planned and executed ceremony, one of five held over two days, so that each graduand could receive a personal introduction. Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University (and also my internal examiner) gave a bravura performance in orchestrating the ceremony, which was enhanced by a wise and amusing speech by Lord (Mervyn) King, former Governor of the Bank of England, and honorary graduand for the School of Humanities. It was followed by an excellent buffet, where we were pleased to be joined by my supervisor, Professor Anthony Glees, and Sir Anthony Seldon, as well as by the MP for Buckingham (and Speaker of the House) John Bercow. The whole event was a grand example of British pluralism: persons of many countries, creeds, colours and cultures (and ages) coming together (in a Protestant church) to celebrate academic achievement and to be individually recognised, before dispersing to their different groups and associations. Pluralism, not multi-culturalism, in the spirit of the endorsements in my thesis. A very satisfactory day, and I am proud to be associated with the sole independent university in Britain with its motto  ̶  Alis Volans Propriis (‘Flying On Our Own Wings’). I was sorry that Sylvia and Julia could not be there to witness it, but the support of Michael and Susanna meant a lot.

Sir Anthony Seldon & Michael

Susanna & John Bercow

So then back to London, and champagne. The next day I had a reunion of the 1965 School Prefects at Whitgift, held at a pub near Hyde Park Corner. On my way there, I saw Howard Morton, who lives in Chelsea, and I was introduced to his charming Rwandan-born wife, Yvonne, and son, James. Twelve prefects attended the lunch: three of them I had not seen in over fifty years. Of course we each had perfect memories of what happened all that time ago, even if they did not all coincide, but Peter Kelly had brought along a few artifacts to provide documentary evidence, and to provoke lively discussion. We all fondly remembered our former leader and Head Prefect, John Knightly, who had sadly succumbed to cancer a couple of years before. I was sorry that not all could make the event, but Peter kindly arranged it at fairly short notice, and it was good to see so many old friends again. One remarkable fact that arose from the occasion was that Andrew Jukes (one of those whom I had not seen for fifty years) told me that he was in Washington (where his father worked in the Embassy) at the time that Burgess and Maclean absconded in 1951  . . .

Percy, Earl, Flood, Stewart, Hislop & New

Kelly, Rawlings. McCombie, Jukes, Kirk & Singleton

Sunday was a day off. I needed a rest, and to catch up. On Monday morning, I took the train to Minster  ̶  between Canterbury and Ramsgate  ̶  to have lunch with Nigel West (Rupert Allason), the doyen of writers on intelligence and espionage matters. I have read (and own) several of his books, but I keep encountering vital titles that I have overlooked and need to read. Nigel had attended the seminar I held at Buckingham a few years ago, so I was able to update him on the progress of my research and conclusions. We covered a lot of ground, including ELLI’s identity, Sedlacek and Roessler, Alexander Foote and Claude Dansey, the mistreatment of Denniston, the ISCOT program, and Sonia’s broadcasts. (Nigel once interviewed Sonia.) Nigel is not surprised by Denniston’s lack of a knighthood, pointing out that neither R. V. Jones nor Commander Godfrey was thus honored, but I continue to maintain that there is a deeper, murkier story behind the insult. Nigel also explained to me the reason why one’s effects are checked before entering the Archives at Kew: an academic had been detected inserting falsified documents into files, and then claiming breakthrough ‘findings’ some time later. (Not in my field, I hope.) That story can be inspected in West’s latest book, Cold War Counterfeit Spies. I was also very happy to meet Nigel’s charming wife, Nicola, a professional violinist, and the time went all too quickly before I had to catch the train back to London.

I needed one more day at Kew, so on Tuesday I caught the train from Clapham Junction to Richmond, switching to the ‘Underground’ to Kew Gardens, with an easy walk to the National Archives. I had a few files I needed to re-inspect, namely Dick White’s apologia to the Cabinet Office, the records of Leo Long, as well as the Kuczynski files that are not available on-line, in order to catch any details I had overlooked beforehand. I also discovered another intriguing RSS file, which included a highly provocative 1943 letter from Richard Gambier-Parry (head of Section VIII in SIS) to Claude Dansey, requesting his support in an attempt to tighten up radio security in the light of unauthorized foreign traffic from England. This was interesting, since Guy Liddell of MI5 Counter-Espionage frequently complains about Gambier-Parry’s lack of concern for such matters, while Dansey has never been known as showing much interest in wireless technology. Gambier-Parry also wrote, alongside SOE, about a unit named ‘P5’, which I had not encountered before. (The structure of wartime SIS is a highly confusing topic: the authorised historian of SIS Colin Jeffery suggests that P5 was a group liaising with Vichy France, while Phillip Davies indicates it dealt with the Polish government-in-exile and the Free French, which is a much more likely scenario.)

Before I left Kew, I bought a copy of West’s Cold War Counterfeit Spies, as well as Peter Matthews’ SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence 1914-1945, which appears to fill an important gap in the literature by concentrating on German interception and decryption techniques.  From a quick scan, I noticed that Matthews makes the confident assertion (on p 196, though curiously without providing a reference or source, or even listing Foote in the index) that Alexander Foote was working for SIS in Switzerland, and passing on to the Soviets the valuable ULTRA information. (This is a hypothesis I am attempting to prove in ‘Sonia’s Radio’.) Thus casually do narratives get confirmed in the historical record, so I was naturally intrigued in the evidence after which he came to this conclusion, which directly contradicts what Professor Hinsley, the authorised historian of British Intelligence in WWII, has written about the release of ULTRA information to the Soviets. I look forward to reading the work from cover to cover, but have already succeeded in making contact with Mr. Matthews, and he has just informed me that he was actually with the Army in Berlin when Foote defected there in 1947! (He also carried out at that time several interviews with German radio intelligence officers.) He has promised to inspect his files to find out what sources confirm the impression he had at the time. But I certainly agree with him in one respect: Foote’s life story ‘could fill another book’.

Time to come home. I left Battersea for Heathrow at 5:30 on Wednesday in order to catch my 8:50 plane to Charlotte. It left at 9:30, and arrived half an hour early, which can be explained only by extraordinary tailwinds, or a padded schedule that leads to improved on-time arrival records. So I had plenty of time for my connection to Wilmington – too much, in fact. The plane coming in from Columbia, SC, was delayed because of maintenance problems, so that, instead of leaving at 4:10, it taxied off to the runway at about 7:00. As we were about to take off, the pilot announced that we would have to return to the gate since one of the flight attendants would otherwise exceed her working time for the day. This was doubly ridiculous: American Airlines should have known what was happening and made a decision beforehand, and the policy that a flight attendant would be dangerously overworked, having spent three hours in Columbia presumably doing nothing, and when the 30-minute flight to Wilmington does not even allow for serving drinks in cabin class, is an example of regulation at its most absurd. Furthermore, we then waited another half an hour until the replacement crew member arrived, while American Airlines told us nothing. What about regulations helping passengers? By the time I arrived home, I had been travelling for twenty and a half hours – something my doctor has advised me not to do. Of course, I do not seek expensive regulations to support frustrated passengers. I want choice of airlines, and less government interference when safety is not an issue. But the options are currently few without even longer flights and journey segments.

Lastly, a strange coincidence. On the train to Newcastle on March 11, I had started reading Charles Cummings’s The Trinity Six, an intelligence thriller about an academic, Sam Gaddis, who chases down a story about a notorious ‘Sixth Man’, and even encounters, at the National Archives, a beautiful SIS officer disguised as a helpful employee. The death of the Sixth Man turns out to have been faked by MI5/SIS, so that his existence can be concealed from the Soviets, who have even more interest than SIS in shielding the public and press from the real story behind his betrayal. I recommend the book wholeheartedly. What is noteworthy, however, is that Chapter 26 begins with the following sentence: “Forty minutes earlier, Tanya Acocella had been passed a note informing her that Dr. Sam Gaddis – now known by the cryptonym POLARBEAR because, as Brennan had observed, ‘he’ll soon be extinct’ – had visited an Internet café on the Uxbridge Road and purchased an easyJet flight to Berlin.” Is this art imitating life, or vice versa, or simply a normal occurrence in the world of spooks? I had never met Susanna’s friend Mo before, she knew nothing about me, and I had not opened a page of Cummings’ book at that time. Gaddis does not fall victim to the multiple murders being carried out by the Russians, which is a good sign, I suppose: on the other hand, no sultry temptresses welcomed me at Kew.  Yet I suspect that it will be MI5 who may not be very happy with me when my revisionist history of that institution comes out this autumn. Is POLARBEAR a marked man? My friend David may think so. I arrived in Britain, however, on my UK passport, and left on my American one. This highly sophisticated ruse   ̶  one learned from my handlers  ̶  may have thrown them off the scent. POLARBEAR landed, but never took off again.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Literature/Academia, Personal, Travel

Taking The Cake

With Alyssa, Alexis & Ashley: October 2016

If I had wanted to bake the cake for my seventieth birthday party myself, I would not have been allowed to do so. For reasons of liability insurance, a catered event at Troon properties does not allow privately created confections, the risk of food poisoning (and consequent lawsuits) being presumably too great. That was fine with me, and the manager and I agreed that ‘Baked With Love’ (who had provided the cake for my sixtieth birthday party) would be an excellent choice as authorized purveyor of dessert comestibles to the St. James gentry. I thus made my way into Southport that same afternoon, cheerily greeted the owner, and presented my request.

But I was to be rejected. She did not recall the order of 2006, and dourly told me that she could not meet my request, as she now only baked for ‘regular customers’. My first flippant thought (apart from the Pythonesque ‘this is a cake shop, isn’t it?’) was that you can’t get much more regular than every ten years, but as I made my way through the door (having been recommended by her to try a couple of alternatives), another thought occurred to me. Would she have been entitled to reject my request if I had said that I was planning a gay wedding? Or the annual solstitial celebrations of the Southport Atheists’ Society? Don’t small business proprietors like her have to be very careful these days?

Now my first instinct is that a family-owned small business – or even a larger one – should be free to develop and market its products as it thinks fit, with as little government intervention as possible. As an example, Neuwirth Motors, the Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/RAM dealership in Wilmington, North Carolina, advertises its business every night on the local TV news programme with the relentless slogan: ‘Where God, Family and You come first!’  Apart from the fact that I am uncertain how one can have this unusual trinity all in first place, and I do not understand what role the Almighty has in the selling of motor vehicles, this does not worry me unduly. (I do not take the micro-aggression too personally.) All it means is that I am permanently discouraged from even considering Neuwirth as the supplier of my next means of private transport, as I would feel very uncomfortable walking into a dealership where I might get quizzed on my understanding of the Thirty-Nine Articles before I was let in to the showroom. But that is fine. There are many other reputable car dealers in Wilmington (although, sadly none for Lexus yet, which could be the subject of another whole blog), and I occasionally wonder how many prospective customers the dealership loses rather than gains through its evangelism, and whether the top honchos at Chrysler approve of  ̶  or even encourage  ̶  this marketing technique.

Yet that is surely not enough. I am too reminiscent of the landladies’ signs of ‘No Irish. No Blacks’ in the streets of London when I was growing up, and am sharply aware of the prejudices that have been exerted against minorities in this country – especially in the South, where I now live. It is clearly unacceptable for someone to be turned away from a business because of who he or she is (or appears to be), and I strongly deprecate such practices. But should a proprietor be forced to participate in a cultural undertaking to which he (or she) is strongly unsympathetic? If I am employed as a registrar of marriages, and gay unions are legal in the state where I work, my beliefs indisputably should not be allowed to interfere with my civic responsibility, and entitle me to refuse to administer such an event. But as a private entrepreneur, may I decline to ice a cake that celebrates such an occasion? Alternatively, irrespective of whether I am a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, should I be able to decline the order of a cake from a well-known Ku Klux Klan member? Or only when that person requests an objectionable but legal slogan on the cake itself? Or never?

Even the U.S. Supreme Court struggles over these matters, and how far the push for free speech can be extended into a legal resolution. It is perhaps regrettable that these disputes find themselves in legislative territory, as they could in many cases be avoided by good manners. By that, I don’t mean to suggest that racist speech can be hygienically cloaked in etiquette, but that sensible persons do not go out of their way to upset other people. I would not try to prove a point by wanting an irreligious message iced on a cake, and going round the bakers of Southport trying to find a willing purveyor. (I doubt whether I would find one.) And I know that if I paraded heathen bumper-stickers on my car around Brunswick County, I would be bound to get key-scratches on it before you could say ‘Billy Graham’. I was brought up more on a philosophy of ‘Live and let live’ (homespun proverbial), ‘It isn’t wrong, but we just don’t do it’ (the Reverend W. Awdry), and ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk’ (from my Wearside grandmother). (I should add to that the acquired and very un-English technique of confronting anti-social behavior the first time it occurs: this sometimes causes immediate friction, but offers the best chance of changing such behavior. I seriously regret the occasions when I have not done that, but have had no second thoughts about the situations when I have followed the principle.) But so much of today’s discourse is about rights and entitlements and grievances and identity and micro-aggressions and cultural appropriation and oppression and victimisation that contrary values are bound to provoke some stepping on other people’s toes.

A pluralistic society (not a ‘multi-cultural’ one) is supposed to be able to deal with such conflicts, recognizing that private beliefs may not be reconcilable but should be allowed to exist so long as they do not break the law (no polygamy, for example). As Isaiah Berlin wrote: “That is why pluralism is not relativism – the multiple values are objective, part of the essence of humanity rather than arbitrary creations of man’s subjective fancies.” But when private values invade the public space too boldly, tensions arise. And we see a lot of that these days. From the traditional right, for example, come jingoistic flag-waving, ‘right to life’ protests, demands for freedom to carry guns, pressures for prayer in schools, and calls for ‘creationism’ to appear in science text-books. And from the left, claims for broader abortion rights, demands for hunting bans, and appeals for strident minority entitlements, including special legal accommodations for all manner of tribes and ‘communities’, including unauthorised immigrants. All these complemented recently, of course, by the question of whether religious attire should be allowed to conceal one’s features in public spaces.

Some believe that these twin pressures can lead to authoritarianism. Isaiah Berlin again:   “ . . . some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled — liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity. So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. . . .  One cannot have everything one wants — not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion.”  That the pressures inevitably express a dawnist yearning may be an exaggeration, but they certainly make that space in the middle more precarious. In a pluralist society, one should be able to engage in discourse with strangers without knowing their ‘identity’, or their ethnic origin, or their religious beliefs, or their political persuasions – or even their sexual personae and preferences, namely all the attributes that belong in the private sphere, and which should better be uncovered gradually as two persons begin to explore each other’s territory, without stereotypes or prejudice. But the gently regal ‘Have you come far?’ has more often been replaced by the brusquely interrogative ‘Where are you from?’ As I like to respond: ‘We are all out of Africa’.

(Note the following item from the New York Times of December 25: “Before 2003, believe me, my neighbor didn’t know what I was. No one could ask, are you Sunni? Or Shia? Or Muslim? Or Christian?” [Mosul Christian Haseeb Salaam])

The outcome was that I ordered my cake elsewhere, at the Side Street Bakery in downtown Southport. See http://www.downtownsouthport.org/side-street-bakery/.  And very good it was. I had my gâteau and ate it, too (well, not all of it). The party went off very well, I believe, and everybody seemed to have a good time. My playlist of ‘The 100 Best Soft Rock Songs, 1960-2000’, relayed by the magic of Bluetooth from my iPad to the sound system, was soon drowned out by the chatter of the guests. About fifty friends attended, but sadly none from the UK. My brother and his wife were regrettably not able to make it, but Sylvia, Julia and I were delighted that our son, James, travelled from California with his eldest daughter, Ashley, for the event. (His wife, Lien, had to stay home with the twins.) Here are Ashley at the Beach Club, she and James, and she and I at the party location, the Founder’s Club at St James.

I also set up, on the back of the menu, a topical quiz, which turned out to be far too hard. (If you are interested, see here.)

All in all, apart from certain political developments, a satisfactory year. I completed my doctoral thesis, and successfully defended it. I signed my book contract, and supplied the publisher with the typescript at the end of this month, so that the item should be available in time for the centenary of the Russian Revolution. I also learned – though not yet officially  ̶  that I had been elected a Vice-President of the Whitgiftian Association, the administrative body of my alma mater. Not an earth-shattering achievement, but one that gives me pleasure, as it reflects some measure of how I must have contributed to the success and reputation of the school. Unless, of course, it was all a hoax. This was, after all, the year of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, and the appointment of Wonderwoman to be the ambassador for women’s empowerment to the United Nations. That prompts me to recall a classic Private Eye cover, from April 1980, just before we emigrated to the United States. It can be seen here: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/covers/cover-479. Doesn’t that take the cake? On that note I wish all my readers a very happy 2017.

P.S. For all the thousands of eager readers around the world who are pleading for the next installment of Sonia’s Radio  – be patient! I know the suspense is almost unbearable. As one reader wrote to me: ‘Sonia’s Radio makes The Old Curiosity Shop seem like press releases from the Department of Work and Pensions’. Quite so. The saga will be resumed next month.

As is customary, the Commonplace entries for the month appear here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Personal, Politics

Doctor in the House

The London Eye

The London Eye

Towards the end of July, I made another visit to the United Kingdom – my first for two years. The primary purpose of the trip was to defend my doctoral dissertation at the University of Buckingham, but I intended to complement the ordeal with some more research at the National Archives at Kew, and at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, as well as see some old friends, and make personal acquaintance with some contacts that I had established through email introductions. I arrived soon after the Brexit referendum took place, so post mortems on the result, and on the process, were high on the agendas of those I spent time with.

After landing at Heathrow, I took my rented car round to Croydon, where I met for lunch my first host, David Earl, and a few old friends at Croham Hurst Golf Club, and then went to stay with David and his wife, Mieke. Mieke, alas, had recently broken her hip in a fall in her native Netherlands, but she was still her irresistibly ebullient self. Unfortunately, during that initial weekend, my back started convulsing with agonizing spasms, with the result that I was lying immobile on the floor by Monday morning. This necessitated attention being diverted from Mieke’s condition to mine (a phenomenon she bore with good grace), and, after I had illicitly taken three of her (non-opioid) pain-killing pills with no effect, it was David who came to the rescue by acquiring some simple heat-pad strips. Their application had a truly miraculous effect within a matter of hours, thus enabling me to continue my journey to Battersea that afternoon. On the Saturday, I had also managed to drive out to Oxted to see another pair of very old friends, Peter and Pia Skeen (Peter having been my best man back in 1976). They generously fitted me in while waiting for their son, Torsten, and his family to arrive from Dubai that afternoon, and sensibly agreed that they would pay closer attention to their personal schedules when my next visit was impending.

I spent a few days with my brother Michael and his wife, Susanna, in Battersea. Susanna has been undergoing a very arduous treatment of chemotherapy for breast cancer, but if anyone has the indomitability and will to beat it, it is she. (She was scheduled for surgery the day I left the UK, August 9.) I was received with the utmost hospitality, and enjoyed some deep discussions on many topics with Michael, who has an excellent brain – especially on financial matters – and who in my opinion expresses more insight and common sense than several economists who have won Nobel Prizes. (You know who you are.) I encouraged Michael to write up his thoughts. Meanwhile, the days of that week were spent in the National Archives, at Kew, a drive of about thirty minutes away. I was able to inspect several files there – too late for my thesis, of course, but research does not stop for artificial timetables  ̶   on Guy Burgess, on the ISCOT programme to decipher Soviet diplomatic traffic in 1943, on GCHQ, on the Kuczynskis, and on miscellaneous other MI5 and Foreign Office material.

While at Kew, I was privileged to have a meeting with Chris Mumby, Head of Commercial Services at the Archives. Last year I had written to him, expressing my interest in the process of digitisation, and explaining how difficult it could be for a remote researcher to identify and inspect important files. Those that have been digitised are available for a very reasonable fee, but constitute only a small percentage of the total, while a request for the digitisation of any thick folder (for personal purposes, though with universal benefit) is penally expensive. I was also intrigued by the arrangement The National Archives had made with Taylor and Francis, a company that makes selective documents available to subscribers, and how that contract related to the Archives’ own initiatives. Finally, I had expressed my astonishment that everyone was allowed access to Kew for free – even foreign residents like me. The Archives bear certain statutory obligations, but the more successful they are in attracting visitors, the more their support costs go up, at a time of static budgets. Could the Archives perhaps not charge admission fees, and perhaps establish a tax-free charity that could allow well-wishers to make donations to alleviate operating costs? I found a very professional and attentive ear in Mr. Mumby, and have every sympathy with him and his colleagues in their challenges. Enough said, for now.

I also met for dinner an old friend, and a new acquaintance. I have been collaborating with the screenwriter Grant Eustace (see http://www.granteustace.co.uk/) , with whom I used to play rugby at the Old Whitgiftians. He has produced a script based on aspects of my thesis, and I was pleased to meet him again, as well as his charming wife, Janie, at a restaurant in Kew, where we could exchange laments about dealing with the worlds of publishing and of other media. (A Hollywood producer had chanced upon my writings on ‘Sonia’s Radio’, but regrettably nothing came of it.) The next evening, I went up to Westminster to meet Andrew Lownie (see http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/) , who published a very well-received biography of Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman, last year. It was Andrew who introduced me to a vital document, released to the National Archives last September, which essentially proved my emerging hypothesis about Guy Burgess’s mission to Moscow in 1940. Andrew and I have exchanged insights and findings on Burgess and his murky dealings with such as Isaiah Berlin and Joseph Ball, and it was productive to sit down face-to-face at last. I had to express some disappointment: when his book was published last year, I sent him a comprehensive list of observations and corrigenda. This summer, the work was re-issued as a paperback, but, while it contained some corrections, and some expanded Notes, no indication was given that the text had been changed. Moreover, while some of my emendations had been incorporated, rather sloppily some had been overlooked, and the author had not added my name in the list of Acknowledgments. Andrew has apologised. He has had his own struggles with the publisher. And we remain on good terms.

On Saturday, Michael, Susanna and I took a trip out to Chiswick Park, off the A4, one of those extraordinary lungs within Greater London’s boundaries. Unfortunately, Chiswick House itself, ‘one of the finest examples of neo-Palladian design in England’ was closed on the Saturday, but we were able to take a leisurely stroll around the gardens.

Chiswick House

Chiswick House

Several renowned names are connected with the House: as the website (http://www.chgt.org.uk/) declares, somewhat enigmatically: “Leader of fashion and political activist for the Whig party, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire referred to her home at Chiswick House as ‘my earthly paradise’. Her parties and political breakfasts at Chiswick were renowned and notable guests included the politician Charles James Fox who later died in the Bed Chamber in 1806.” We are left to guess what he was up to earlier – before breakfast, presumably. I present a photograph of Michael and Susanna at the fountain, for the record.

Michael & Susanna

Michael & Susanna

The next day, I made my way to Oxford, where I would stay at the Holiday Inn, within ‘Park and Ride’ access to the town centre. Most of Monday and Tuesday were spent in the new Weston Library of the Bodleian, where I had arranged to study the files of Sir Patrick Reilly and Sir Joseph Ball, as well as letters that Sir Rudolf Peierls, the sponsor of, and collaborator with, the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, had written to various scientists during the course of Fuchs’s arrest and conviction. All three sources were as revealing because of what they did not say as much as for what was explicit. I also was shown round the new library  by Jessica Brown of the Development Office, and specifically led to the carrell that I had donated a year or two back .

The Roof of the Weston Library

The Roof of the Weston Library

The Carrell at the Weston Library

The Carrell at the Weston Library

The fixture is a slightly ostentatious but genuine gesture of appreciation for how Oxford has helped in my career: I do not believe I recognised it at the time, but Harold Macmillan’s 1975 observation that an Oxford education should teach you to detect whenever someone is telling you obvious rot (a dictum that he claimed he learned from the philosopher John Alexander Smith) has remained with me ever since, and has stood me in good stead in my life.

My supervisor at Buckingham, Professor Anthony Glees, lives in Woodstock, just north of Oxford, and he kindly invited me for cocktails on the Monday, so I was pleased to see him again, and meet his charming wife, Linda. After more research on Tuesday morning, I repaired to my old college, Christ Church (known as ‘the House’) where Simon Offen, of the Development and Alumni office, generously entertained me to lunch, after which Cristina Neagu, the Keeper of the Special Collections in the Christ Church Library, showed me a fascinating array of old texts that have only recently been closely examined.  She also took me into the tower of the library, where an extraordinary camera (known, I think, as the ‘Graz’ machine) allows delicate documents to be photographed quickly, safely, and accurately, thus contributing to a series of world-wide collaborative projects after the images are passed to the Bodleian for publication (see http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/library-and-archives/digital-library). I also bumped into the Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd. Professor Martyn Percy, who gave me a warm and enthusiastic welcome, after which we discussed, among other things, our shared lack of genealogical propinquity to the Dukes of Northumberland. That evening, I dined alone at The Trout at Godstow, only a few minutes away from the Holiday Inn, which has always been one of my favourite hostelries ever since I first went there in 1966. And the following morning I made my way to Buckingham for my viva.

I was honoured to have Sir Anthony Seldon and Professor Christopher Coker as my internal and external examiners, respectively. Moreover, I was gratified, immediately on entering the examination room, to be told that my thesis had been accepted – without any recommendations for changes. While this left the notion of the ‘defence’ of my thesis hanging in the air, it was the best kind of surprise. Thus “Confronting Stalin’s ‘Elite Force’: MI5’s Handling of Communist Subversion, 1939-1941” is now in the record books, although I have requested a suspension of promulgation of the text pending my attempts to convert it into a book. I enjoyed some interesting exchanges with my examiners, but the whole process was over in about three-quarters of an hour. At the end, knowing that Sir Anthony’s first teaching assignment had been at Whitgift School in 1983, I asked him whether he had encountered my father, Freddie, who, although having retired by then, was still active as historian and archivist, and would have taken a very strong interest in new members of staff. ‘F.H.G. Percy!’, he exclaimed. ‘That great man! (or words to that effect)’. He had never connected my name to his. [Late in August, I received a very generous note from Sir Anthony, which ran: ‘Many congratulations on an excellent Ph.D., and in memory of your distinguished and great father.’]

Then back to Battersea, to celebrate with champagne. The next morning I was off to the House of Lords, as Lord and Lady Young of Cookham had kindly invited me on a tour of the Houses, and to lunch. Aurelia, Lady Young has been a close friend of Professor Glees since childhood, and the Professor had introduced me to her (via email), as he believed I might have some insights into the history of her father, the Croatian sculptor, Oscar Nemon, based on my researches into the treatment by MI5 and the Home Office of émigré Jews in the late 1930s. Diligent readers may recall my reference to this wonderful lady in an earlier piece, to be found at http://www.coldspur.com/reviews/some-reflections-on-the-north-downs.

Lady Young

Lady Young

Professor Glees & Lady Young

Professor Glees & Lady Young

I was delighted to see the several busts crafted by her father in the Houses of Parliament: for some reason, I had never toured the place (was it not open to the public when I was growing up?), and it was very enjoyable to sit on the terrace with the London Eye in view. Lord Young, who has had a distinguished career in politics, is now a whip in the House of Lords. He was also at Christ Church, graduating shortly before I matriculated, so the photograph here probably represents our sharing memories of Christ Church personalities rather than his Lordship’s seeking my opinions on the security implications of Brexit.

Lord Young and Dr. Percy

Lord Young and Dr. Percy

The next day, I drove down to Dorset, to stay with another couple of old friends, Brian Wizard and his delightful wife, Sue, who own a very attractive cottage (actually, joined cottages) in Tarrant Monkton. Brian and I worked together in IT back in the 1970s, so we share a lot of memories of the software business, its heroes and its villains. Like me, Brian is very impatient of bureaucratic bumbling and obfuscation, and likes to write letters with a view to dismantling evasiveness and irresponsibility, so I was pleased to catch up with his latest exploits. The Wizards’ property rolls right down to, and then bridges, the River Tarrant, and as the photographs show, is a beautiful example of the art of country gardening.

Hotspur

Hotspur

Brian Wizard

Brian Wizard

Observant watchers may notice that Brian (notwithstanding his other excellent attributes) is a little challenged in the stature department: this feature, however, does enable him to walk around his cottage without stooping, while I am always in danger of bumping my head. I have thus asked him to consider raising the roof for my next visit. He and Sue regaled me with a very generous dinner in compensation for my discomfort.

On Saturday, onwards to Stow-on-the-Wold, a journey that reminded me that the British road system is quite good so long as you are travelling on radials from London. Still, it was a glorious drive through Cranborne Chase, followed by a rather boring patch until I arrived in the Cotswolds. There I was to stay a couple of nights with Derek and Maggie Taylor, Derek being a contemporary of mine at Christ Church, and the recent author of a couple of books (see www.derekjtaylorbooks.com ), about whom I have written on this blog. The Taylors had arranged a dinner where I was to meet an acquaintance whom I had not seen for almost fifty years – another House man, Nigel Robbins, who lives down the road in Cirencester with his wife, Stephanie. The next day, the three of us drove out to Snowshill Manor, an exquisitely situated house that was once owned by the eccentric collector Charles Wade.

From Snowshill Manor

From Snowshill Manor

In the evening we dined at the ‘Hare’ in Milton-under-Wychwood. There is little doubt in my mind that, if I ever returned to live in the UK, it would be somewhere in the Cotswolds. But English winters, after fifteen years in North Carolina? No, thank you.

So what about Brexit? Well, at my age, one tends to socialise with people whose views tend to echo one’s own, but I listened to – and read – a variety of opinions. First, some paradoxes. It seems bewildering to me that the European Union has been represented – both by some Remainers as well as by certain Leavers – as an exemplar of free-market global capitalism. (In his new book ,‘The Euro’, Joseph Stiglitz repeatedly makes the astonishing assertion that the problems of the euro are attributable to the ‘neoliberal ideology’ of its designers). The European Union is in fact a closed club, a customs union, with expensive barriers to entry, and the use of the euro imposes a number of stringent rules.  Some pro-EU observers assert that the nation-state is irrelevant in an era of globalisation, but, by the same token, the attempts of the Union’s regulators to maintain economic ‘stability’ will be as futile as those of an individual country. I also found it extraordinary how many Remainers drew attention to the loss in funding that would occur with Brexit, as if the Union were a rich uncle, and other countries were simply panting to hand over their hard-earned surpluses to subsidise British social projects. I was astonished at how many of the chattering classes, intellectuals, artists and luvvies, saw Brexit as the end of civilization, as if all cultural ties and links to Europe (of which Britain would still be a member) would have to be sundered if Article 50 were to be invoked. I was intrigued that, on the troublesome immigration issue, the more attractive business climate, the cultural pluralism, and the native language of Britain all conspire to make Britain a more attractive destination for entrepreneurial young persons. (I cannot see English plumbers looking for work in Gdansk or Bucharest.) I was appalled at the lack of preparation by David Cameron’s administration for the outcome of an ‘Exit’ vote in the referendum, something he should explicitly have considered even though he regarded ‘Remain’ as a foregone conclusion. My impression of Cameron, incidentally, was not improved by reading Sir Anthony Seldon’s book on the ex-Prime Minister, the paperback version of which came out shortly before I arrived.

Somewhat emotionally, I believe that it was timely and courageous to attempt an exit now, rather than later. (“Very bold, Prime Minister”, as Sir Humphrey would have subtly admonished.)  If the answer to the Union’s challenges is more integration, not less, then getting out as soon as possible is the right response. Even the Union’s stoutest defenders now recognize that the Euro is mortally wounded, and any efforts by the Eurocrats to make exit highly painful and onerous, and scare off any other pretenders, will only confirm how unaccountable and unresponsive the European council and parliament are – what has been called ‘the democratic deficit’. With a belief that budgets and political programmes are best exercised at the national level, and that part of our British democratic process has been [sic: can this continue with the implosion of the Labour Party?] ‘throwing this lot out and letting the others have a chance’ (would there ever be an official opposition in Brussels that was for decelerating the ‘European Project’?), I suspect something messy, but not nearly as dire or as wonderful as either camp would claim, will emerge. As for taking back control of legislation, however, I must confess to some doubts whether the British civil servants and parliament are any better than their EU counterparts, if the recent laws on hate-crimes are any indication. James Alexander Smith, we need you now. (I am more interested in Brexit than in the appalling saga of the US presidential elections, by the way, in case you hadn’t guessed.)

Monday afternoon saw me spending an enjoyable couple of hours in Burford, where, among other things, I bought a copy of Clive James’s elegiac Sentenced to Life, and then I made my way to a hotel near Heathrow, so that I could return my rental car in good time the next morning. In the exit-lounge, as I waited to board, a young man offered me a seat, which I graciously declined. Have I suddenly become that old? It seems only a short while ago that I was offering my seat to the elderly. I shall be seventy in December: maybe everything up until this point has been achievement, and now begins the slow trudge downhill. But enough of gloomy thoughts: too much Clive James, perhaps. Better to relax on the plane  ̶  a little sparkling wine, and keep decline at bay by tackling the Times’s Saturday crosswords. Meanwhile, I mentally prepared myself for what I should do if an emergency message came on the intercom: ‘Is there a doctor on board?’, planning to rush over to deliver a soothing lecture on Isaiah Berlin and Guy Burgess to the afflicted passenger, but, mercifully for all, no call came. Instead I sank back to watch a Classic Movie – not ‘Doctor in the House’, but, from the same era, a piece of frothy nonsense titled ‘Funny Face’ (1957), which I had seen for the first and only time soon after it came out. It was redeemed, of course, by the bewitching Audrey Hepburn. I recalled several of the scenes very clearly, and the show put me into a nostalgic mood. ‘Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan’, and, after an unnecessarily long layover in Charlotte, I was overjoyed to see my ever-lovely wife and daughter waiting at Wilmington Airport to drive me home to Southport.

Sylvia & Julia (at Lake Tahoe, June 2015)

Sylvia & Julia (at Lake Tahoe, June 2015)

A very rewarding two-and-a-half weeks.

P.S. Susanna’s operation went well. She returned home to Battersea on August 14, and is recovering steadily, despite considerable discomfort and pain.

P.P.S. I have just spent several hours processing about 5,000 responses to my posts that had accumulated on my website since the beginning of 2015, and which I had carelessly ignored. This was no easy task: I had to inspect every individual response. Most were software-generated. The system did present them in batches of twenty, each of which I could mark, and then ‘block-process’ as spam, but some of the posts were hundreds of lines long, containing  dummy and real urls, requiring dozens of clicks to process each. Probably only 1% were genuine posts, with most of the rest coming from vendors of cheap merchandise, or people trying to sell me web optimisation services, and some bewilderingly not appearing to have any purpose at all. But when a responder shows his enthusiasm for ‘The Undercover Egghead’ by titling his response ‘Cheap Ray-Bans’, or another tells me how ‘utterly beneficial’  he found my piece on ‘Richie Benaud, My Part in His Success’ for his ‘True Religion Outlet’ posting, the haphazardness and futility of the exercise became clear. Presumably their originators believed that their posts would appear on Search engines without my having to ‘approve’ them. If I did miss, because of the purge, a sincerely targeted comment from any of my readers, I apologise. And if I had had the sense to mark each item of spam as such as soon as it arrived, I might have avoided the problem.

August’s Commonplace entries appear here. (August 31, 2016)

2 Comments

Filed under Personal, Politics, Travel