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Late Summer Idleness – plucky Brits, enemies within, spies, street vendors…and Death

August 26, 2016

Sunflowers

August for me has always had a dream-like quality, especially in Britain, my home country. You could easily imagine that half the world shuts down, as politicians, journalists, neighbours and schoolchildren disappear on their holidays. The roads are almost civilised in the morning, thanks to the lack of cars delivering little ones to their places of education. And when we get a run of decent weather, as we are at the moment, we seem to go into a strawberry trance.

This year we’ve been blessed with the sight of rowers, shooters, hockey players, gymnasts and synchronised swimmers going through their bizarre routines in Rio. Sporting mayflies emerging into the spotlight of prime time television for their quadrennial moment of fame. No matter that we won’t see them again until 2020, and that most of us slumped in front of our tellies in holiday resorts, pubs and quiet sitting rooms at home watched with bemused fascination as judges judged on criteria beyond our understanding, and referees intervened to enforce rules so arcane that they could only have been created by committees of Pharisees.

gb-hockey

I suppose we all got a bit of a lift when our plucky Brits bumped the Chinese from second place in the medal table – about the only way we “pull above our weight” these days. And it was genuinely heartening to see these athletes, professionals to a greater or lesser extent, succeeding through determination, expert coaching and liberal doses of money, courtesy of the nation’s enthusiasm for the National Lottery.

While we bask in the post-orgasmic glow of all those smiling faces bearing medals, the occasional reminders of the ludicrous reality we have left behind for a short few weeks begin to surface. Boris Johnson running the country. Jeremy Corbyn sitting on the floor of one of Richard Branson’s trains. And Nigel Farage milking the applause at a Trump rally.

No doubt more serious stuff awaits us in September. In fact, the world has never stopped being deadly serious, even if we haven’t been paying attention to it.

Several national newspapers have been busy alerting us to the new Yellow Peril. No, not hordes of Japanese soldiers kicking us out of our empire and forcing our soldiers to build railways. This time it’s China’s attempt to build stuff within our shores. The Hinkley Point nuclear power project, we are warned, is not only a bad deal commercially, but dangerous because the Chinese, who will be a partner in the project, will thereby gain a foothold in the UK’s critical infrastructure. They have already bought a large chunk of our North Sea oil production. What next? Will they soon be building our warships and missiles, and running GCHQ on our behalf? Unlikely, but you never know.

Certainly it doesn’t bode well for the future of post-Brexit Britain that we no longer have the expertise to build our own nuclear power stations. For the Faragists among us, it must be almost as mortifying that we have to rely on France, our prickly enemy/friend, for the engineering capability to make Hinkley Point happen.

Further afield, the multidimensional war in Syria and Iraq is becoming more baffling than ever. Has there ever been a more complex matrix of interests, ambitions and alliances than in the Middle East today? The only constant is death.

Then there’s the turmoil in Turkey. Despite the post-coup purge of the armed forces, the government has still managed to summon up enough troops and tanks to overwhelm ISIS in a key Syrian border town, not – if you believe some narratives – to destroy ISIS but to take the town before the Kurds get there.

And is it any wonder that the average observer outside Turkey fails to understand the paranoia about the Gülen Movement. Why should Mr Erdogan be so obsessed by this seemingly mainstream Muslim organisation, whose followers believe in religious toleration and liberal education? Is it a cult? Is it a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Did its leader, an elderly and seemingly avuncular cleric, orchestrate the attempted coup from his eyrie in Pennsylvania? Is he a Trotsky or a Khomeini, plotting and planning in exile to bring about the downfall of the established order? Or is he just a convenient scapegoat, whose followers are a convenient enemy within?

I don’t know enough about Turkish politics to judge with any confidence, but one thing’s for sure: in the West, his PR is more effective than Erdogan’s. The President is seen as an increasingly authoritarian figure, locking up journalists and purging thousands of army officers, judges, civil servants and teachers suspected of being Gülenist sympathisers. But if you believe the Gülenists, they are no more threatening to the established order than the Methodists were in eighteenth-century Britain.

A Strangeness in my Mind.jpg

In any event, I’m hoping that A Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel – which I’m ploughing through at the moment – will give me more insight into the current mindset within Turkey. The book traces the life of an Anatolian street vendor in Istanbul. Through his eyes we see the growth of the city and the evolution of the wider Turkish state since the late Sixties. Two things are already apparent. First, the gulf between the cosmopolitan Istanbul elite and the conservative societies in Anatolia from which most of the city’s new population have come. And second, the corrosive effect of successive military coups and of the authoritarian regimes that followed. No wonder the Turks pushed back with great courage against the latest attempt.

Another tome I’ve just finished serves as a reminder that the kind of multidimensional conflict we’re currently witnessing in the Middle East is by no means unique. Max Hastings’ latest book, The Secret War – Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945, does what it says on the tin.

The Secret War

Hastings sets out to provide a panoramic view of intelligence activities of all the main participants in the Second World War, as well as the various partisan movements and embryonic special forces deployed by the combatants. So we learn about the familiar stories – the Ultra decryptions by Bletchley Park, the bumbling German Abwehr organisation and the far more effective spies of the Soviet NKVD. We also encounter the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunners of the SAS and the CIA respectively.

What emerges is that the masters of these organisations, in particular Stalin and Hitler, rejected much of the intelligence presented to them because it ran contrary to their own views. Thus Stalin ignored overwhelming evidence that Hitler was about to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. And Hitler fell victim to deception tactics in advance of Operation Bagration, the Soviet offensive in 1944. He also swallowed the Allied deception designed to convince Germany the invasion of France in 1944 would centre on the Pas de Calais. Similarly, the US ignored compelling evidence of Japanese plans for the attack on Pearl Harbour.

What is perhaps less well-known is the infighting and rivalry between the intelligence services within each of the combatants – the mutual contempt between the British MI6 and the SOE, and in the US, between the FBI and the OSS. Perhaps more surprisingly, the fact that in the latter part of the war, intelligence and special forces activities, especially those of the Soviet Union and the US, were largely focused on the post-war future. To that end, allies spied on allies, and on the odd occasion carried out hostile acts against each other. For example, US fighters shot down two British aircraft carrying French forces on their way to infiltrate into Japanese-occupied Indo-China.

During the Asian conflict, rivalry between the British and the Americans centred on Roosevelt’s anti-colonial views. He was determined to thwart British efforts to re-establish dominion over the colonies they lost to the Japanese, and sought instead to establish areas of American economic influence. The OSS was one of his tools for achieving this end, with the result that it and its British counterpart the SOE hardly spoke to each other. The Soviets, of course, were focused on penetrating the Manhattan Project that resulted in the development of the atom bomb. This they did with some success.

In case we imagine that World War Two was a conflict in which the allies were solely devoted to winning the war, Hastings reminds us that the victors were also determined to act in their own long-term interests in anticipation of the post-war order, even if that meant acting against each other during the conflict.

In reading terms, Pamuk and Hastings are not exactly summer salad for the mind. But I’ve always been a meat eater, so that’s fine. For a little dessert, I’ve turned to Dead – a Celebration of Mortality, by Charles Saatchi. I picked it up for five quid in a local charity shop. It had not been opened, so clearly someone didn’t relish someone else’s idea of a cheery gift. Perhaps it was an eightieth birthday present.

saatchi-dead-book

Anyway, despite my misgivings about the author, who grew rich coming up with natty ads for Margaret Thatcher, cornered the market in modern art of questionable merit, and was caught on camera with his hands around his wife’s throat, I am interested in his chosen subject. After all, I’m closer to that momentous event than many.

And very appetising it is too. Saatchi has come up with a hundred-or-so short vignettes, mostly factual, on various aspects of death. No turgid philosophising, though I imagine he sees his choice of subjects as a philosophical statement in itself. He writes with dry wit about Russian gangsters, gallows humour, near-death experiences, of living Indians in Bihar declared dead by relatives to get hold of their meagre inheritances and a host of other subjects. The book cover looks like a tombstone, and the layout reminds you of a Word document in the hands of someone who couldn’t use the table of contents and footer features. Except that it’s clearly a deliberate effect.

Dead is an entertaining, even if rather a cold and cynical, study of the fate that awaits us all. Its bite-sized chapters are easy to read and never boring. The last chapter is short and sweet:

SOME LIVES LEAVE A MARK. OTHERS LEAVE A STAIN.

ALMOST EVERYBODY LIVES A LIFE OF LITTLE CONSEQUENCE TO MANKIND.

BUT WOULDN’T YOU PREFER TO HAVE SPENT YOUR YEARS RATHER USELESSLY, BUT ENTERTAININGLY – EVEN IF YOUR EXISTENCE DIDN’T ACHIEVE ANYTHING MEMORABLY SIGNIFICANT AT ALL?

I wonder if that’s how Saatchi sees his own life. Certainly, it seems to me, his final words are those of a melancholy man. Be that as it may, Dead is perfect fare for the fading days of summer. Available from a charity shop near you, no doubt.

I for one will continue to enjoy my ant-like existence, blissfully unaware of the manner in which the Great Foot will descend on me, but newly enlightened on the vast array of possible exits.

And now, September approaches and the kinderpanzers get ready to reclaim the morning roads. Our attention turns from burkinis to Brexit, as the politicians continue to flounder in the mess they created.

Time to go on holiday.

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