Empire of Secrets

Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire, by Calder Walton

William Collins (2014), Paperback, 448 pages

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A new twist on the seemingly endless litany of British intelligence failures in the Cold War era. Actually,  there are two twists. The first is that the book deals primarily not with the colossal damage caused by superspies like Philby, Burgess and Maclean, but rather, with British intelligence involvement in Britain’s sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, sometimes comical departure from its various colonies after WWII. The second twist, perhaps more surprising, is that Britain actually had some intelligence victories in these colonial and post-colonial manouevres. The book is based largely upon a huge cache of documents dealing with these events recently discovered hidden away in one of the British government’s secret facilities. The documents showed that not only were MI5, MI6 and GCHQ occasionally successful in predicting the course of events in decolonization of particular countries, they also sometimes managed to pick the right man to run the country after independence, though more often than not, they tagged many prospective leaders as Communists, even when evidence clearly showed they were not. Perhaps the most surprising revelation is that many newly independent colonies allowed British intelligence officers to stay on in their nations after independence. This includes Kenya, who arguably had the most painful transition to independence after the horrific British reaction to the Mau-Mau movement, which included concentration camps , brutal torture and a complete misjudgement of what Mau-Mau stood for.  Walton pulls no punches here in describing British atrocities, nor does he sugar-coat his depiction of the Jewish terror gangs that endeavoured to hasten Britain’s departure from Palestine by bringing terror to British streets, showing there was little difference between the ideology and activities of these groups and modern-day Muslim terrorist groups such as Al-Quaeda. This is an interesting book which covers a previously little-known aspect of British intelligence and does it well. Highly recommended for spy buffs and those interested in Britain’s colonial disengagement.

9/10

Declaring His Genius

Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America, by Roy Morris

Harvard University Press (2013), Hardcover, 240 pages.

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Delightfully gossipy, name-dropping account of Oscar Wilde’s epic year-long odyssey through the USA and Canada in 1882,  covering over 15000 miles and giving 140 lectures on the principles of the Aesthetic movement and the “English Renaissance”  to alternately bemused, scornful or adoring American audiences. Name-dropping is the order of the game, as Wilde manged to meet or interact with a staggering number of prominent Americans of the Gilded Age, including Walt Whitman, Henry James, PT Barnum, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jefferson David and Ulysses S. Grant, to name just a few. The pace of the book is unrelenting, as Morris presents the story as a series of brief vignettes, recording the reactions of the Americans to Wilde’s persona and dress as well as to his lectures. Less a work of history than a long-running historical gossip column with multiple digressions and tangents, it’s a delightful light read, although Morris has a serious point to prove claiming that Wilde’s journey helped him to grow as a writer and as a person. You can argue or not with that thesis, as you will, however, it hard to deny the sheer entertainment value of this book, with humour a-plenty, both intentional and unintentional. Not serious history, by any means, but fun history, as it were.

9/10

Hundred Days

Hundred Days: The End of the Great War, by Nick Lloyd

Penguin (2014), Paperback, 348 pages

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A fascinating book giving a detailed insight into one of the least-known periods of WWI, the last few weeks before the Armistice. many people seem to think, due to the lack of coverage of the battlefield during this period, that the war somehow petered out to its inevitable ending, with little action as war-weary soldiers on both sides waited and prayed for the end. In fact, as Lloyd describes, it was one of the most frenetic periods of the war, as the trench stalemate was finally broken and the Allies launched a series of frantic offensives to drive the Germans back to their own borders, gaining more territory in the process than they had gained in the previous 4 years. The undermanned, starving and disillusioned German army did not give up easily though, inflicting massive casualties on the Allies as they fought to defend every inch of the way. Lloyd does an excellent job of capturing the feel of the times on both sides, the bravery, the desperation, the absolute war-weariness coupled with the determination to finish the job. It’s a quick-moving, enthralling book, concentrating heavily on the Americans, who made their major contribution to the war in this period, but not forgetting the British, French, Canadians and Australians, whose efforts were no less brave and rewarding. This is one of the better WWI campaign books I have read in recent years, it is actually quite refreshing to get away from the flurry of recent books celebrating the 100th anniversary of the war’s beginning, to start at the other end of the process, as it were. An excellent read for war and history buffs.

9.5/10

Ring of Steel

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary at War, 1914-1918, by Alexander Watson

Allen Lane (2014), Hardcover, 816 pages

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Not exactly an exciting book, but an absorbing one. Readers be warned: This book is heavy on tonnages, production figures and the like, very light on descriptions of military action. Much less a book about the military campaigns of the two main Central Powers, than a book about how their governments and their societies coped with being encircled by enemies, the so-called Ring of Steel, and especially denied vital supplies because of the crippling British naval blockade. The book is a litany of declining resources, the desperate struggle to feed their populations and still conduct an effective war, and the increasing misery of the home front with literally everything running short. As a sidelight, the book also deals with the fracturing of the venerable Austro-Hungarian Empire, a disparate collection of totally different peoples held together only by belief in the Emperor. As this belief began to wane in the face of military catastrophe and crippling shortage, the individual peoples of the Empire began to move away from each other towards their particular national goals. Germany, being much more ethnically homogenous, did not have this problem, but suffered instead from political rupture between Right and Left, at first over the best way to prosecute the war, then later, on how best to end it. Watson’s research is meticulous, the book precise to the nth degree, but still effectively captures much of the feel of the times, with carefully placed excerpts from letters and diaries of people living through these days. In short, it is one of the best marriages of raw, dry figures and engaging social history I have ever read. This is by no means an exciting read, but nor is it ever boring. Highly recommended for those interested in the Great War who would like to read for once something other than endless tales of trenches and mud.

9.5/10