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Great Man history

On Andrew Roberts’ Churchill: Walking with Destiny.

For The Oldie

“A pair of…”

for Ross Brown









Devil’s[ ]

Devil’s d

Devil’s du

Devil’s dum

Devil’s dump

Devil’s dumpl

Devil’s dumpli

Devil’s dumplin

Devil’s dumpling

Devil’s dumplings

Did The English Patient send me to Afghanistan?

Two nights from now, by way of (ahem) a birthday present, I will be attending a live-orchestra screening of The English Patient at the Albert Hall.

I had invited an old friend, a raven-haired young lady (named in Debrett’s) of impossibly romantic tendency, who first exposed me to the film in, I’d say, about 1998 or ’99. It took a bit of selling, even then (and back then I thought I was Byron); but after not much more than a couple of minutes of the multi-Oscar-winner – about, to take just Michael Ondaatje’s main character, Count Ladislaus de Almásy, a pilot of dubious origin who is shot down in the Egyptian desert during the Second World War, knows the lines to every song he’s ever heard but not his own name, and may or may not have betrayed his colleagues to ze Chermans for the sake of love (we have no time for the true biography of László Almásy) – I was, of course, completely hooked.

Alexandra, alas, is unavailable (she works in theatre, natch), so I’ll be going with Harry – and as Harry’s guest, in fact. Harry and I were in Afghanistan together, in 2013, and, as he likes to say, I’ll never come to Dorset. (Don’t tell him: I’ve been several times, just not to visit him. He lives in Fulham, anyway.) But that film that Alex showed me has been with me for the better part of 20 years, now.

I applied to study Egyptology almost entirely on the strength of it, a fact I carefully concealed from cagey academic overseers at school and university. During my gap year in South Africa – just to be even more abysmally pretentious – I didn’t tuck things in a copy of Herodotus (‘the book he brought with him through the fire’), but in a Collected Works of Oscar Wilde. At Oxford I would walk around listening to the movie’s famously aching – nay, plangent – Gabriel Yared soundtrack on a loop (like all Ondaatje books, the original itself is in any case full of music and singing). In Canada I bought a black leather blazer-style jacket from Banana Republic, although I drew the line at knee-length khaki shorts.

In the libraries of the Oriental Institute I found odd books on modern Egypt (gasp!), or at least more-recent explorations of the desert, and began to make my own trips – though actually seeing Egypt, perhaps predictably, was not really a course requirement. And when I fell out with my college it was the lonely-hero movies like The English Patient I returned to in the bitter evenings. I became well-versed in the admissions criteria for the Foreign Legion. And then – under the signature of my professor – I joined the Royal Geographical Society, as found, thinly disguised, in the EP novel:

‘In the 1920s there is a sweet postscript history on this pocket of earth, made mostly by privately funded expeditions and followed by modest lectures given at the Geographical Society in London at Kensington Gore. These lectures are given by sunburned, exhausted men who, like Conrad’s sailors, are not too comfortable with the etiquette of taxis…’

The RGS – right next door to the RAH – has some nice old copies of Almásy things (not all in English), as well as material on the Long Range Desert Group (cf. the famous picture of bearded, hard-eyed SOE types in duffel coats, that used to do the rounds of my regimental HQ) and more scholarly desert-exploration articles by the likes of Bagnold, Bermann, Ball and Hassanein Bey, which Ondaatje sought out in back numbers of the Journal.

And in my then mood, the romantic, antisocial, somewhere-on-the-spectrum explorer and lover of the desert’s solitude, whose happiest memory, as he tells his (supposedly) illicit inamorata, Katharine Clifton, is the time he travelled all day with a guide who said nothing until he pointed at the horizon and said “Faya”… well, it struck a loud, if none-too-subtle, chord.

After a meeting once with Ranulph Fiennes (I followed him round the bookshops of Oxford, between signings, until he told me that in Oman he would have killed me by now), he put me in touch with John Hare, who had just completed a long camel-backed Saharan crossing, and whose brain I wanted to pick about doing one through the long crescent of oases in Egypt’s Western Desert. I never made that journey (yet). But a flame had obviously been kindled.

My first copy of the novel, came, entirely fittingly, from the American University in Cairo bookshop: a well-annotated, typo-strewn Picador paperback reprint, with the price (I think) on the title page in blue biro, bought on my first trip, in 2003, in the days immediately following the invasion of Iraq – an interesting time to be a tall, blond, white man in an Arab capital. (The receipt is still inside: it cost 45 Egyptian pounds.) I later gave in and bought myself a first edition, on Charing Cross Road, which I’ve not opened. No doubt I have a clingfilmed ‘deluxe’ version of the movie somewhere, also.

The book, of course, is total poetry (if there were ever any grounds for criticism it would be that there’s too much ‘poetry’). In a wonderful deleted scene, available on YouTube, an old bedou tells Almásy something, which he translates to Katharine: “He thinks he’s been there – but the route he’s describing, well, he couldn’t survive the journey now; but he’s a poet, so his map is poetry.”

I’ve ever since been an enthusiastic reader of Saul Kelly, Justin Marozzi, and other writers on Herodotus, the lost oasis of Zerzura, and the ‘real’ Almásy, all of which led to a friendship with the freewheeling, polymathic writer Robert Twigger, to interview whom I ‘crossed the Sinai’ (I was on a bus) in 2009. Rob now lives in Dorset (ssshhhh…!), and his most recent travel book – on the Himalayas, following on from one on the Nile – was Book of the Month in Geographical magazine, the magazine of the RGS. In a nicely complementary kind of way, I’ve just this week been asked to write my first piece for that magazine.

Eventually, the chance arose to go to my own desert war, and so I leapt at it. But that was years ago now, and unexciting – and I survived, unharmed, unlike (the fictional) Almásy.

I remain ‘a person who if left alone in someone’s home walks to the bookcase, pulls down a volume and inhales it.’ I still keep things I need in books (which means that I can never find them). I know both names for what that place is called, at the base of a woman’s neck. Beyond a weekend or two with HM Forces, I haven’t yet got round to learning Arabic, let alone Hungarian, or several of the other languages that Almásy spoke (my two brothers speak a little, though I bet they can’t describe a mountain that looks like the shape of a woman’s back); but I can name some of the winds Almásy/Ondaatje describes, and tell their stories. I often listen to the Yared soundtrack. In fact, Benny Goodman’s ‘Wang Wang Blues’ was one of the first things that I played my child when she was born. Nor can I give her (or anyone else) a bit of plum without informing them that it’s a ‘very plum… plum.’ We were in Brighton, the other week, at the aquarium, to celebrate her turning one, and I found myself humming Lorenz Hart’s original words to ‘Manhattan’, ‘before they were cleaned up.’

I’ve watched the film at least a dozen times, now, and read the novel maybe half a dozen. I’ve given copies of both DVD and book as gifts, and indeed the movie-script on one occasion. And despite the fact that I own several copies, it’s one of a number of books – among those by a small number of literary favourites, like Chatwin, Coetzee, Golding, Dyer, Sebald, Hitchens – that, if I see it in a charity shop, I feel I ought to rescue, simply because it’s wrong that it should be there.

A few years and/or rewatches back, I realised that the day the ‘ENGLISH(?)’ patient is introduced to us is, by the notebook of the interrogating officer, my birthday.

In July, The English Patient won the Mother of all Bookers (or whatever this go round was called). We all know books mean many things to many people, and can have major real-world repercussions, on personal and even national levels. But amid all the renewed plaudits for Ondaatje’s classic novel, and the obvious, widespread awareness that it’s a tale packed full of questionable characters, traumatised and very literally scarred by conflict, it suddenly occurred to me that, given a long-enough trajectory, and alongside several other factors, it seems entirely plausible The English Patient is the reason that I went to war.

What would Ondaatje think of that, I wonder? My guess is he’d probably be horrified.

Up diddly up, down diddly down

Itchin’ for a Twitch Inn, at the Heritage weekend.

For The Oldie

Brue meets gel

About the Bruegels on my bedroom wall.

For The Oldie

Intelligence review

‘For centuries before the Second World War, educated British people knew far more about intelligence operations recorded in the Bible than they did about the role of intelligence at any moment in their own history.’

Nowadays, one might think, few would even know that. But that’s where Christopher Andrew – Emeritus Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, and late President of Corpus Christi, Cambridge (Marlowe’s old haunt) – begins his compendious survey, with the story of the twelve Israelite spies sent out by Moses into Canaan, then stricken with plague for coming back with intel that displeased their overlords.

At approx. one word per long, footnoted page, it seems hopeless, almost impertinent, to try to summarise The Secret World: a list of just the ‘firsts’ would take up half this magazine. What’s more, ‘intelligence’ includes a multitude of sins. But pulling together, variously, the threads of deception, subversion, image analysis, psychological operations, covert operations, propaganda, espionage, signals intelligence (Andrew’s chief hobby-horse) and what the KGB called ‘active measures’ (that is, killing) – or, in Clausewitz’s characteristically straightforward wording: ‘every sort of information about the enemy and his country – the basis, in short, of our own plans and operations’ – Andrew’s brightly-coloured tapestry depicts the following:

Egyptian-Hittite diplomatic correspondence (intercepted); the presence of seers in Classical militaries (ridiculous); Caesar’s early use of ‘substitution ciphers’; China’s 2000-year-long insularity; Mauryan India’s enthusiasm for assassination; the formative ‘Secret Stage’ of Islam; the 13th-century internal crusades of Christianity; the commercial intelligence of Renaissance Venice (‘the custodian of the archives was illiterate to prevent his reading their contents’); Ivan the Terrible; the intelligence partnership between Elizabeth I and the ruthless Walsingham; Richelieu’s Cabinet Noir; the original Special Relationship, between the English and the Dutch … [we're approaching p200 now] … and so on, up to the grotesque return of holy warfare in our own supposedly enlightened era.

This is not simply by way of a completist stratagem. Israeli security services, Andrew points out, take their mottoes – and their remit – from religious scripture. Likewise Sun Tzu, the Indian Arthashastra, and the Hadiths all actively feed into contemporary, real-world conceptions of what intelligence is for, and even how to go about it. Andrew’s avowed intent is ‘to recover some of the lost history of global intelligence over the last three millennia, to show how it modifies current historiography, and to demonstrate its continuing relevance to intelligence in the twenty-first century.’

Straightening out the ‘non-linear’ history of intelligence is one thing: peaks and troughs occur, nations scale back intelligence activities in peacetime, and official secrets legislation hinders research. Few people had heard of Bletchley Park for decades after WWII; and Cold War history to date remains misshapen by the Kremlin’s ability to better keep a secret than the CIA.

But Andrew is determined to correct the ‘long-term historical amnesia’ not only for the purpose of tweedy, collegiate assessment, but also for the sake of ongoing intelligence. Wars, not surprisingly, routinely prove a hasty turning point. But Xenophon suggested it was probably a good idea to give some thought to spies before hostilities (a lesson repeatedly unlearned over the intervening ages) – and yet for most of the hundred years between Waterloo and WWI, Britain essentially had no intelligence infrastructure. It is absurd to have to reflect of Bletchley Park (e.g.), that ‘no other wartime profession was as ignorant of its own past.’ Andrew fairly grinds his teeth at the thought of Allied cryptanalysts busy reinventing the wheel (or many spokes of it), completely unaware their predecessors had helped repel the Armada and defeat Napoleon doing just this sort of work.

‘The value of even the best intelligence,’ of course, ‘is only as great as the use made of it.’ The Secret World, inevitably, contains a litany of ‘intelligence failures’ which are, often as not, in fact broader political ones. The burning of the English fleet in the Medway (no budget); Pearl Harbour (inherent racism); Stalin before Operation Barbarossa (Trotsky mania); the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (missed by CIA; but ill-considered by the KGB). Andrew admits it’s possible to get away with these: at its height, the Roman Empire had so many soldiers that there were essentially no rebellions, and no need for much intelligence. But the same cannot be said of our ‘Forever Wars’.

A lifelong academic, bestseller of intelligence scoops like the Mitrokhin archive, and official historian of MI5 (in which role, if in no other, he is enrolled in the Security Service), Professor Andrew knows whereof he speaks – and, no doubt, from time to time, whereof he must keep silence.

Though not shy to repeat himself to make a point (he laments, as scholars will, that other historians fail to note the vital issues in his field), this magisterial result is highly readable, if barely portable. Needless to say, it’s packed with fascinating characters. And with 200 pages of notes and bibliography that are an absolute trove for the intelligencer (not to mention raw material for several dozen novels), The Secret World looks certain to become a standard reference work for graduate intelligence-type courses, and beyond.

For The Oldie


‘Breast milk substitute
is the best milk substitute!!’

Litterary death match

In the Autumn of 2014, feeling somewhat down about his wordsmithing career, uncertain in his role as model for his two sons, and with one eye on the health of his own father, Toby Litt decided to take on the oft-postponed biography of great-great-great-grandfather William.

An undefeated prize-fighter and winner of 200 belts in the popular – if now slightly quaint – 19th-century pursuit of Cumberland & Westmorland Wrestling (hereafter: ‘wrestling’), William Litt (1785–1850) was something of a Renaissance man. He wrote ‘the first [English?] history of wrestling’ (Wrestliana, 1823) as well as a ‘densely worded’ and rather autobiographical novel, contributed poetry and correspondence to the Cumberland newsheets, became a trainee priest, a noncommittal farmer, a bankrupt brewer, and a school-teacher, and even dabbled in a spot of smuggling. He wore his top boots in the ring, and was, in his day, a big noise in the North-West: ‘the Champion of the Green’, as much written about as writing – a sort of ‘Gentleman Jim’.

But he was not, crucially, a gentleman. And, lacking focus perhaps for his talents, he went off the boil quite fundamentally after his sporting retirement. He made no money, abandoned his family (Litt – Toby – is at pains to stress that he himself plays football with his kids, a lot), and retired to the ultimate obscurity of Canada, like an old heroic Greek who cannot come to terms with his mortality. That or, more prosaically, he’d had a run-in with his Cumberlandlords.

There was one final burst of letters to the Pacquet, and then… nothing. Two centuries later, his biographer stands awkwardly beside an intersection where his grave should be.

With its local customs, Wordsworth sidebars, notes on the cosmopolitan elite vs the (real) countryside – and did you know that ‘buttock’ is a verb in wrestling…? – Wrestliana is at once a family history, rural psychogeography, and a breezy, open window on the writing life, with all its disappointments, dead ends and half-conclusions.

But this is not what Wrestliana is about.

What Wrestliana is about is: why is Toby Litt not more like William Litt? What makes a man in 2018 – and how’s that different from in 1818? Are there physical and intellectual forms of manliness?

Litt, ‘a puny Southern desk-worker who play[s] video-games’, checks Dads v Lads, school bullying (by his own admission, the reason he became a writer), Norman Mailer’s dog, and other quotidian ‘tests’ of one’s machismo, and concludes: ‘Even when they’re not wrestling, men are always wrestling.’ Worse, in the present-day iteration of this conflict, between what he calls the ‘two tribes of masculinity’ – the professional sportsmen and the poets, ‘who distain sport’ – he sees no chance of a reconciliation: ‘if you’re well-balanced, then you must be a well-balanced no-hoper.’

Twas ever thus, no doubt – unless you really were a moneyed gentleman.

Litt is a bit hard on himself, and gives his forebear too much credit. Though there is, it transpires, a chain of writers from William Litt down to his great-great-great-grandson, and even if William was ‘an unprecedented combination of athletic superiority and literary talent’, and though his poetry be soever put to decent biographical use, he was, needless to say, not a professional poet, and there is too much of his verse in this book.

But, as the gap between the two men narrows, Litt (of course) decides to give the wrestling a try – and comes up even more impressed than previously. ‘What “all-rounder” means, in cricket, is just that a man can bowl and bat and field, not that they can write a decent essay on the causes of the French Revolution and cook beef Wellington and play the flute… William was a genuine all-round man, a real oddity.’

While Litt won’t claim to have cracked this age-old problem (our 21st-century man can’t shed a tear at William’s ‘graveside’ – and feels bad about it), and some might find his wrestling-as-life a smidge predictable, he feels the metaphor is apt.

At any rate, he’s rightly sceptical of football as the vehicle for any of life’s (or even sport’s) essential lessons. The last words of the book are ‘They shake hands.’

For The Oldie

M.O.’s m.o. – or; Everybody wants to be like Mike

A review of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight.

For The Spectator

Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy Bluffer’s Guide

Last weekend I played host to a particularly friendly cricket match – by which I mean that both teams had no clue what they were doing.

The opposition, Rain Men, were captained by my friend and usual team-mate Simon, whose excuse was that he’d only played the game 263 times previously. The other captain was, er, me.

I staffed it out (to my younger and more-gifted brother, specifically). For Simon’s part, I gather he was cruelly sent a copy of Mike Brearley’s The Art of Captaincy. But what we could really both have used, perhaps, was the Bluffer’s Guide to Cricket.

‘Only a fool will start bluffing without a basic knowledge of how to play the game,’ say James Trollope and Nick Yapp, authors of this revised and updated 126 pages of ‘instant wit and wisdom’™.

But as anyone who has ever even heard of cricket is aware, there is nothing remotely basic about it, a sport so intellectually and emotionally discombobulating – not to say physically demanding – that players have to stop repeatedly for food and, at the highest levels of the game, sleep. The laws of cricket, per se, may only take up 30 pages, but they are mostly small print. (‘You’d be better off learning irregular verbs in Serbo-Croat.’) So, pretty soon, we are clarifying vital minutiae such as the Duckworth Lewis Method (‘not a form of birth control’), how you should never bluff around a man holding a scorebook, and why no-one ever thinks he’s caught a ‘dolly’.

All these things – it goes without saying – are entirely uproarious for those who’ve actually played some cricket. (Americans need not write in.)

Of course, a lot of rubbish is talked around and indeed within the boundary of a cricket match, not least because there is so much time available, especially when – hypothetically speaking – one has been sent back to the dressing room by an unplayable left-arm inswinging first-ball yorker. And as even the most otherworldly amateur cricketing gentleman will confirm, there is no surer test of one’s relationship than bringing an uninitiated girlfriend along to a full day’s village cricket. On this, readers may wish to take with a pinch of salt the suggestion that ‘you might be surprised (and relieved) to discover that a lot of talk at a cricket match doesn’t actually involve cricket.’ And only a certifiable lunatic would repeat within earshot the opinion that ‘rather like the offside rule in football, nobody is quite sure how [the lbw 'rule'] works.’

But for those plucky chaps (and chapesses) brave enough to want to hold their own on or near the field of glory, there are sub-sections on ‘bodyline’, Test Match Special, and the importance of ‘the protection’; tips on what to say about the national side (‘Pretending to be an Englishman if you’re actually a South African is bluffing of the highest order’); mini-biographies of the great and good (incl. Fuller Pilch, 1803–1870, who played, cut grass, and tended bar for what is now my village club); and a glossary of Johnsonian-type definitions (‘Beamer: … Bowlers always pretend they didn’t mean to’). There’s even – gasp – a bit on women’s cricket.

Still, ‘there’s no point in pretending that you know everything about cricket – nobody does’ (Trollope and Yapp have not met Marcus Berkmann, obviously…). But having riffled – and/or ROFLd – through their waggish pages, you could at least consider yourself ‘a bona fide expert in the art of bluffing about the world’s most puzzling and incomprehensible game’.

A word of warning, though: ‘An extreme bluffer may even take the dangerous step of accepting an invitation to play. This is not recommended.’

Witty, mischievous, and above all thoroughly genial, The Bluffer’s Guide to Cricket is among Haynes Publishing’s (they of the car manuals) ‘refreshed’ line-up of 16 Bluffer’s Guides, spanning – and occasionally cross-referencing – such typical pre-, post- and even intra-prandial conversational ‘opportunities’ as fishing, beer, golf, cats, cycling, and management.

With the series now well into its sixth decade, discerning Oldie readers might also enjoy the classic Keith Hann volume on opera (Kiri Te Kanawa is related to Sir Arthur Sullivan, by adoption), William Hanson’s drippingly snotty guide to etiquette (please don’t stack the Sèvres china…), Susie Boniface’s implacable run-down of social media, and Jonathan Goodall and Harry Eyres on that holiest of all bullshitter’s – I, I… I mean ‘bluffer’s’ – holy grails: talking about (rather than simply getting on and drinking) wine.

There is, obviously, a bluff (a double-bluff?) inherent in the Bluffer’s Guides – which is that no-one’s ever going to come to these for explanations. The market, surely, is people who already understand a thing and would like some cheerful British humour on the subject. By way of Christmas presents, probably. This only works, of course, if the information in the books is broadly accurate. All the same, a good few authors bluff on their relative unfitness to write authoritatively about their chosen topics.

The latest in the series is The Bluffer’s Guide to Brexit.

‘Keep calm and negotiate.’

‘Let’s hold another referendum on whether to hold another referendum.’

Possessors of strong views on the elephant in the room de nos jours will be pleased (or displeased…?) to find that Boris Starling’s primer tells you what to say – and with the aid of 54 footnotes, what is more – but it doesn’t tell you what to think. Starling’s back-page biog maintains ‘he determinedly keeps his own counsel about Brexit… refusing to be drawn on his views about something so fraught with imponderables’. (Elsewhere he claims he asked his editor to guess at his position on the matter.)

For the rest of us, though, on this, as on so many topics, would-be bluffers can console themselves with Starling’s fundamental theme: ‘Only one thing can be said with certainty about Brexit: nobody knows anything.’

The Bluffer’s Guides are (re)published today

For The Oldie, in a different edit